Knitting Factory Presents
Travelers' Rest: Sunday
WHAT A TERRIBLE WORLD, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL WORLD
“In some ways, this album was four years in the making,” says Colin Meloy, frontman and primary songwriter of the Decemberists. “We were on hiatus, so we had all the time we could want, no schedule or tour, no expectations.”
With the ability to work at their own pace, the resulting record, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, is the band’s most varied and dynamic work, both musically and emotionally. Since their earliest recordings more than a decade ago, the Decemberists have always been known for their sense of scope and daring—from “The Tain,” an eighteen-and-a-half minute 2004 single based on an Irish myth to their last two ambitious, thematic albums, The Hazards of Love and The King is Dead. This time, though, Meloy explains that they took a different approach: “Let’s make sure the songs are good, and eventually the record will present itself.”
The Decemberists—Meloy, Chris Funk (guitars), Jenny Conlee (keyboards),Nate Query (bass), and John Moen (drums)—had announced that they would be taking a break when their touring cycle finished following the release of 2011’sThe King is Dead. Meloy wanted to spend time with his family and work on the children’s book series that became the acclaimed, best-selling Wildwood trilogy. To be sure, they had reached a new peak in their career: King entered the Billboard album charts at Number One, and the track “Down by the Water” was nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Rock Song” category.
Even during the hiatus, the group remained visible: they released an EP of outtakes from the album titled Long Live the King; contributed the song “One Engine” to the Hunger Games soundtrack; and put out We All Raise Our Voices to the Air, a live album documenting their ferocious intensity on stage. They even had the honor of appearing in animated form on The Simpsons, and performed on the season six finale of Parks and Recreation.
Mostly, however, Meloy was concentrating on the Wildwood series—the 1,500-page saga of two seventh-graders who are drawn into a hidden, magical forest, illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis. So when the band reassembled in May 2013,the plan wasn’t to make an album in their usual way.“Typically we book four or five weeks in the studio and bang out the whole record,” says Meloy. “This time, we started by just booking three days, and didn’t know what we would record. There was no direction or focus; we wanted to just see what would come out. We recorded ‘Lake Song’ on the first day, live, and then two more songs in those three days. And the spirit of that session informed everything that came after.”
They reconvened in the fall and added some more songs. Gradually, over the course of a year and a half, the album came into focus. What was initially apparent was a fuller, richer sound. “There was a grandiosity to the songs indifferent ways,” says Meloy, citing Leonard Cohen’s 1977 collaboration with Phil Spector, Death of a Ladies’ Man, as a reference point. “We were layering textures, adding strings and dedicated backing vocals—the early songs created the peaks of the record, and that started to dictate the overall tone and tenor.”
The first batch of songs, Meloy notes, represented the more personal side of his songwriting, a change from the strong narrative thrust that characterized much of the Decemberists’ work. “Writing books as this raw, fantastic narrator has been the outlet for that part of my brain,” he says. “Having a family, having kids, having this career, getting older—all of these things have made me look more inward. So some of these songs are among the more intimately personal songs I’ve ever written.
”Perhaps most notable is “12-17-12,” a song named for, and inspired by, the date that President Obama addressed the nation following the Newtown school shootings, and read the names of the victims. “I watched that speech and was profoundly moved,” says Meloy. “I was hit by a sense of helplessness, but also the message of ‘Hold your family close,’ and this was my way of marking that for myself.” This bewildering, conflicted feeling came out in a phrase near the end of the song—“what a terrible world, what a beautiful world”—that gave the album its title.
As the sessions continued, other elements of the writing and the sound surfaced and a more rounded picture emerged. “As soon as I finished the books, I immediately started writing more narrative songs,” Meloy says. “‘Cavalry Captain,’ ‘Carolina Low,’ those all started coming out. But there was a more subtle voice coming in; I wanted moments of levity, a little tongue-in-cheek. Also, we figured out that the big, pop sound we were making would also make the quieter moments more still, create more dynamic peaks and valleys.”
Without a deadline, the Decemberists were also able to explore every song to completion. “Usually you have to let some songs slide because of time constraints,” Meloy says, “but nothing was relegated to the b-side pile, everything was given a fair shake. Which is a blessing and a curse—we ended up with 18songs, and each had champions and detractors. There were a multitude of albums you could potentially make—somber, over-the-top pop, folk—and I think every band member would have created a different record.”
Ultimately, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World found its final form, a distillation of the best things about this remarkable band. A new way of working led to a renewed excitement about the next chapter for the Decemberists. “I’ve never lived with a record for so long,” says Colin Meloy, “documenting my shifts and changes as a songwriter, with a real sense of time passing. And there’s something very freeing about working on music with absolutely no agenda, and just letting the songs become themselves.”
The best pop groups want to change the world. They want to leave an imprint that no one forgets, to do more than check out as a minor statistic in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. They want to change the world of pop, and to engage with the politics of pop. Belle & Sebastian have re-invented the pop festival; they signed to a tiny independent label but still beat Steps to a BRIT, before sweeping into the Top 40, then the Top 20. They’ve brought their lost sixties heroine, Evie Sands, over to play a show in Glasgow. They’ve sold out a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. And, in 2014, they cut an album – their ninth – called Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, that blends electro-glide, baroque balladry, and giant-sized Europop hooks. They deserve several accolades, each of which are rare for any band in 2017 – Belle & Sebastian are unique, unpredictable, and fiercely loved.
Part of their appeal is that Belle and Sebastian have always given the impression of being completely unaware that they are even famous. Emerging in the late nineties, they appeared to be both press and camera-shy, but also entirely self-contained; they seemed to have a secret, something built around books and films, and yet were happy to share the love, stopping just short of writing individual songs for their fans. And their fans, naturally, became obsessive, formed their own bands, started their own loosely affiliated clubs, radio shows and websites. A secret gang – who wouldn’t want to be a part of it?
But then again if you’re a band who works with Trevor Horn, Carey Mulligan and Norah Jones, you’re probably not content to lurk in the tiny shadow offered by a seven-inch single on Postcard. And if you end up on the soundtrack to Adam Curtis’s The Power Of Nightmares, or Todd Solondz’s Storytelling, as well as Juno, then there’s going to be more than a little grit and grain to your music than adjectives like “shy” and “fragile” might suggest.
They have worked with outside producers ever since Trevor Horn helmed Dear Catastrophe Waitress in 2003, plumping up their sound, pumping it full of light and air, and getting ‘Step Into My Office Baby’ unlikely but welcome repeated plays from Ken Bruce on BBC Radio 2. This suggested a sharp step away from the tape-swapping, pen pal world they had been thought to inhabit (of course they never had, not really). Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air, Phoenix) was hired for The Life Pursuit (2006) and Write About Love (2010). The latest album was recorded in Atlanta with Ben Allen (Deerhunter, Washed Out, CeeLo Green and Animal Collective) who convinced them to leave things more open-ended, less thoroughly thought-out in advance, leaving the producer and the musicians more space to be spontaneous. The result is playful, super-melodic, with lyrical nods to both their past and an optimistic future, and joyful jumps into new musical territories.
Belle & Sebastian have stood as something different right from the beginning. Let’s have a quick poke around the previous eighteen years. Debut album Tigermilk (1996) was the product of a Stow College music business class that drummer Richard Colburn was taking; just 1,000 vinyl copies were pressed. In spite of huge major label interest (immortalised on the track Seymour Stein on their third album, The Boy With The Arab Strap) they initially signed to the tiny Jeepster label, then later to Rough Trade and now have their first worldwide deal with Matador Records. The key to their appeal was a sense of community. Their self-curated Bowlie festival would evolve into All Tomorrow’s Parties; they became central to a nascent message board culture, and a US loop of labels and fanzines (even writing a song about one, Chickfactor) that adored their music, their stance, and their imagery.
In Britain they famously upset the applecart in 1999 by winning the “Best Newcomers” BRIT award through the votes of their fans, faced accusations of vote rigging, and in the process have got the backs of the tabloids up (sample Daily Record headline: “Belle Boy’s At It Again”). So, clearly, they’ve been doing something right.
In Mind, the fourth full-length record from Real Estate, is a portrait of a mature band at the height of its power. Long respected for their deft lyrical hand and gorgeous melodies, In Mind builds upon the band’s reputation for crafting perfect songs and carries Real Estate even deeper into the pantheon of great songwriters.
On the new record, the band fine-tunes the winsome songwriting and profound earnestness that made previous albums—2009’s Real Estate, 2011’s Days, and 2014’s Atlas—so beloved, and pushes their songs in a variety of compelling new directions. Written primarily by guitarist and vocalist Martin Courtney at his home in Beacon—a quiet town in upstate New York—In Mind offers a shifting of the gears, positing a band engaged in the push/pull of burgeoning adulthood. Reflecting a change in lineup, changes in geography, and a general desire to move forward without looking back, the record casts the band in a new light—one that replaces the wistful ennui of teenage suburbia with an equally complicated adult version. The record not only showcases some of the band’s most sublime arrangements to date, it also presents a leap forward in terms of production, with the band utilizing the studio as a tool to broaden the sonic landscape of their music to stunning effect.
In Mind offers passing nods to the sanguine qualities of earlier releases while also depicting a band in a state of real change. Since the recording of the band’s last album, Courtney had become a father of two and settled into a newfound domesticity living in Beacon, while bassist Alex Bleeker made the move out to sunny California, creating a complicated new set of logistics for the band to work around. Additionally, after the departure of founding member and lead guitarist Matt Mondanile in 2015, the band—Courtney, Bleeker, and drummer Jackson Pollis—faced the prospect of either closing ranks or embracing the changes that bringing in new people would ultimately bring. “It just seemed like a good moment to move in a slightly different direction,” says Courtney, “The idea of bringing in a stranger seemed too weird, but I wasn’t interested in recording as a four-piece and having some hired gun come out to play shows with us. In the end asking Julian Lynch—who we’d already been playing with and we’ve known since high school—to join the band made the most sense. He felt like a full-time member of the band already.” This was also true of keyboardist Matt Kallman, who previously played with the band on Atlas and on that record’s subsequent tour. Joining the band in a more official capacity before the recording of In Mind, Kallman contributed in both sound and scope, writing the keyboard parts and contributing to the album’s arrangements. With a new lineup secured and armed with an arsenal of songs that Courtney and Bleeker had spent the past six months writing, the band approached the business of fleshing out the songs in an almost workmanlike manner.
“It was good being outside of the city,” recalls Kallman. “We got a little Airbnb in Beacon and we rented a practice space inside an old converted high school. We would walk to the high school and play music all day, then go play basketball, go to the health food store or go out to dinner, then go back to the house. We did that every day for, in total, about three weeks. It was nice not having the headache of our regular lives. It all felt very open, like we were planted there to do a job and that’s all we could do was just work on the songs. I think the music kind of reflects that space we were in—free and open and cautiously optimistic.”
Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Cole M.G.N. (known for his work with the likes of Beck, Snoop Dogg, Dam-Funk, Nx Worries, and Julia Holter), the eleven tracks on In Mind deliver the same kind of warmth and soft-focus narratives that one has come to expect from the band—pastoral guitars, elegantly deployed arrangements, a sort of mindful melancholy—but there is also a newly adventurous sonic edge to the proceedings. Album opener—the ebullient pop number “Darling” — announces itself with a wash of synth tones rather than guitars. Elsewhere, on tracks like “Serve the Song” and “Two Arrows,” guitarist Julian Lynch employs a variety of distorted guitar sounds that might have felt out of place on previous Real Estate records, with the latter track stretching out beyond the six-minute mark—the closest thing to a jam the band has ever recorded. The band’s predilection for crafting airtight pop songs remains in full-effect here, with songs like “Stained Glass” and “Same Sun” occupying the same kind of rarefied universe as fan favorites like “Talking Backwards” or “It’s Real.” ‘Where does one thing ever end and the next begin?’ Courtney asks in the latter, ‘I do not wish to retrace the steps I’ve taken / All that matters now is where I’m going.’
Glittering pop moments aside, the record’s most stunning moments are arguably it’s most restrained— “After the Moon” unspools in waltz-like fashion, while album closer “Saturday” offers In Mind’s most pointed take on moving beyond the fascinations of youth: ‘When a stranger is living in your old house / What does where you were born still say about you? / It’d be best to jettison what you can’t redo.’
Perhaps more than on any other Real Estate record, the lyrics on In Mind seem to reflect a struggle between youth and adulthood, the desire for escapism balanced against the increasing demands of responsibility. (‘There’s no place I would rather be right now,’ sings Courtney on “Stained Glass”, ‘I’d love to never leave but I just don’t know how.’) “I feel like it takes touring a record for a few months and playing the songs over and over for me to really start understanding my own lyrics,” says Courtney, “but so much of this record feels like it has to do with my concerns about taking care of my family. I will often walk my wife and kids to the library and then just go out on my own, wandering around the town for three or four hours and writing the lyrics in my head.” Courtney continues, “We certainly never thought this would be our lives, but now that it is, we all want to protect that and nourish it and keep it safe. I think maybe that’s what this record is about.”
As for the band’s increasingly widespread appeal, both bassist Alex Bleeker and Courtney can only theorize as to what it is about their music that seems to strike such a profound chord with listeners. “I think there’s an earnestness to what we do,” says Bleeker. “It’s coming from a truthful place of human experience, but it’s also kind of raw. It evokes something for people, even though we are often dissecting subject matter that seems super normal and undramatic, it’s also relatable. We all grew up with this common, cookie-cutter kind of American suburban experience and we can’t help but write about that. I think there aren’t a lot of people who actually write about that in a very forthright way.”
Per bassist Alex Bleeker, the songs on In Mind reflect a kind of quiet ambition on the part of the band. A desire not to reinvent themselves, but rather to just be the best version of themselves that they can be. “We’re never looking to overhaul anything in a huge way,” he says, “But we do want to grow and explore new territory and use the studio in a different way. We didn’t want to change anything arbitrarily, but it felt good to reach out into some more exploratory space while still holding on to what makes us Real Estate in the first place.”
Sometimes, things just seem to happen for a reason. The pieces fall into place in unexpected ways, and life takes a turn no one could have predicted. This rings strikingly true for the solo career of Memphis, Tennessee's Julien Baker.
For years, Baker and a group of close friends have performed as the band Forrister (formerly The Star Killers), but when college took her four hours away, her need to continue creating found an outlet through solo work. The intent was never to make these songs her main focus, yet the process proved to be startlingly cathartic. As each song came into shape, it became more apparent that Baker had genuinely deep, surprisingly dark stories to tell from her thus far short life (she turns 20 this fall). Tales of her experiences are staggering, and when set to her haunting guitar playing, the results are gut wrenching and heartfelt, relatable yet very personal. There's something wonderfully hypnotizing about Baker gently confessing her soul with such tremendous honesty.
At the prompting of a friend, Baker ventured to Richmond, Virginia to record a number of her new songs at Spacebomb Studios. The tracks from this session were circulated among Baker's friends, meeting high praise and lots of encouragement for the songs to see a proper release. Soon, she found a home on 6131 Records' increasingly diverse roster, and plans were made to release her debut full length, 'Sprained Ankle.'
To call 'Sprained Ankle' a happy accident would be misleading as to the nature of these poignant, emotive songs. Yet no one, least of all Baker, could have predicted she'd be releasing an album, especially as a solo artist. Thankfully, now the world will be able to share in her passion and sorrow.