Until you become a parent, you simply can't imagine the compromises you make without a thought to accommodate the needs of your children. Quite apart from the poop factor (in which the pre-kid categories of “no poop” and “poop” are joined by new states of being like “just a little poop,” “no visible poop,” and “I don’t smell anything, let’s make dinner”), all parts of your life are subtly altered in ways you don’t even notice until something throws the changes into stark relief.
Take music, for example.
My kid turned one year old this week, which means it's been a pretty cool year. He’s already musical, capable of banging a drum in time for up to five beats in a row or strumming my guitar with his little fist if I make a chord for him. That's wonderful, but it also means that he cares what noise is on the stereo. Therefore, anything that isn't kid-approved has for now mostly passed from my life.
The Boy's favorite music is metal (Iron Maiden, Amon Amarth, Metallica), bossa nova, and bluegrass, which mean's I'm an incredibly lucky person with an incredibly hip youngster. But his favorite favorite music is one specific lullaby album that he needs to hear every night at bedtime, and often at naptime too. Given that bedtime can ramify without warning from a fixed moment in time into an exhausting four-hour campaign of sorties, clever feints, temporary détentes, and diplomatic appeals to reason (lost, by the way, on the infant mind) which only through Herculean effort grinds toward a denouement in which our little angel drifts away to dreamland, sometimes that damn CD gets played straight through five or six times.
The upshot is, no matter how much NPR and jaded indie-rock I can cram during the daylight hours, the last twelve months of my musical life have been owned by “Dancing with Bears” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
Which is why the latest release from the New England-based Midriff label has been so welcome. The 2006 release by their flagship band, The Beatings, titled Holding On To Hand Grenades, was my favorite album of that year, and several other Midriff releases have come close to that very high standard. Since Midriff is essentially “the Beatings and their friends and collaborators,” the various projects, side projects, solo releases, and guest appearances add up to something like a white, postcollege Wu Tang Clan. Protect ya neck, New England!
The latest Midriff release is called The End of the New Country, and is attributed to a duo calling themselves Get Help. Get Help is a collaboration between Beatings guitarist and vocalist Tony Skalicky and New York musician Mike Ingenthron, who began writing songs together as a break from writing ad jingles. If Midriff has a GZA, it seems to be Skalicky, who has a very clear idea of what he wants his music to sound like and sticks to the plan like a pro.
What this means on vinyl (or in bits or scattered photons) is that like many other Midriff releases, Get Help drenches well-written songs and strong melodies in layers of fuzzy guitar and feedback which gradually build and ebb between enormous climaxes and quiet moments, a sound that is definitely, undeniably, refreshingly adult – not at all for little kids, and not at all like jingles.
Ok. I will admit, even without a kid in the picture this kind of stuff is like catnip to me. I can’t deny it. Give me some reverb, some layers of distorted guitars, and a slightly downcast lyric and I’ll go for it like a sucker. But – and this is important – at the end of the day, the songs need to be good. Without a great song, pretty sounds are just pretty, and the bloom quickly comes off the rose. That’s the story of dozens, if not hundreds, of albums that have crossed my path in the last two decades, and you probably haven’t heard of any of them.
Luckily, at least half of the songs on The End of the New Country (due out October 14) are very good indeed, with Skalicky’s brittle baritone voice (which resembles a cross between Ian Thomas of Joy Division, British folk icon Richard Thompson, and Jimmy Buffett) and Ingenthron’s lighter voice cutting through the sumptuous bed of dissonance and soaring overtones that is one of the Midriff label’s trademark sounds. The musical DNA is Sonic Youth, Morphine, and My Bloody Valentine, but Skalicky and Ingenthron manage to invoke the sounds of their influences without becoming a thin imitation of them. (Does the fact that all the comparisons I can draw with Get Help are a decade or more old say something about them, or about me?)
But I did say “half.” One weakness many musicians have in common is an attenuated ability to self-edit. Call me old fashioned, but it's usually a mistake to assume that just because a CD can hold 74 minutes of music, it therefore should. That’s so wrong. An album takes as long as it takes — and that time is generally under twelve songs and 45 minutes. Ask the Ramones; given half an hour, six microphones, and four chords you can make an all-time classic.
In the case of The End of the New Country, the album opens and closes extremely well, but the sheer number of songs on the record (fifteen), and a tendency toward sedate tempos and plush guitars means that the middle sags somewhat and some gems get buried. "Traveler's Shave Kit," which opens the record, and "Growing Circles" which closes it, are good enough to amount to statements of purpose. However, apart from the excellent title song I find myself hard pressed to identify standout songs when playing the record straight through.
Take for example “The Town Fires,” which is the twelfth song on the album. It’s a quiet and understated song that in the context of the album fails to stand out. But when it emerges in a random playlist, it turns out to be a very welcome, winsome, and lovely three minutes of music. I guess too much of a good thing amounts to too much of a good thing.
The End of the New Country is a jumbled and slightly messy project with stretches of real beauty, strong melodies, and sumptuous production. But on the songs that aren't standouts, the production is merely soothing rather than dramatic. This record is worth buying, ripping, and then making your own ten-song version out of the raw materials presented. Most importantly for me, this album does include at least ten very good songs that provide an alluring and mature break from lullabys and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider."