Burn, Piano Island, Burn
Some have accused Ross Robinson, the producer of the Blood Brothers’ major label debut, Burn, Piano Island, Burn of sonic trickery. Robinson, these naysayers claim, took a band that wasn’t particularly heavy and made them sound downright brutal. On this point, I couldn’t disagree more. It’s always been my opinion that Burn, Piano Island, Burn is the only Blood Brothers LP that manages to accurately capture the intensity of the band’s live show (see the appendix to this reissue, the “Jungle Rules Live” DVD, if you don’t believe me). Burn, Piano Island, Burn is an eviscerating record, a relentless sonic assault that teeters on the edge of chaos for nearly 50 minutes. Dynamically speaking, it’s all release—you’re expected to bring your own tension to the party.
Yet Burn, Piano Island, Burn has so much more to offer than just blistering intensity. Lyrically, it’s a great leap forward from March on Electric Children. Using imagery culled from the detritus of society, the album paints an alarming picture of a crumbling, post-modern dystopia, one whose inhabitants never pass up an opportunity to indulge their worst instincts. Rather than attempting to tell a heavy-handed story, the album simply spews forth images like a cracked piñata, inviting repeated listens and close scrutiny.
Still, this is very much a scorched earth campaign, a fact that the band makes immaculately clear from the onset. The 39 second-long “Guitarmy” isn’t just the album’s opener—it’s a statement of intent. “Do you remember us? Do you remember us?/We doused your TV set in propane, turned up the gain!” Whitney and Billie gleefully shout amid power chords and snare hits that land like tons of bricks. The Blood Brothers are here not to mourn the breakdown of society but to celebrate it.
“Fucking’s Greatest Hits”, the album’s first full-length song, demonstrates just how far the band had come musically since March on Electric Children. Though disjointed and powered by a jerky, start-stop rhythm, the song comes charging out of the gates with a driving momentum. It’s far from disorderly, however: tiny details—a ride hit surgically inserted into brief second of white space, a verse that collides perfectly into a chorus, clicking rim hits that tick off fractions of a second—reveal a laser-sharp focus and a mastery of craft. This, it seems, is the sound of meticulously controlled chaos.
Offering a momentary respite from the storm, “Every Breath is a Bomb” also speaks to the Brothers’ disdain for traditional song structure. Opening with what sounds like echo-laden, violently plucked piano strings, the song eventually finds an uneasy groove in a repeating organ line and crashing cymbals. Things limp along like this at first, with Whitney’s squeals setting the scene: a comatose patient in a “fluorescent tomb”. Around the one-minute mark, the drums start to build and the song bursts in a flash of primary colors. Whitney and Billie play a brief match of vocal tennis (“Can you inject love’s tender touch back into the gang bang…Can you put the bite back in the beast you’ve broken, tied and tamed?”) before the song retreats again back to that organ line.
At last, the drums pick up beneath the wobbly organ and things roll along steadily until the song hits what can only be described as a ska breakdown. We then get a brief coda wherein Billie whispers menacingly over a shuffling drumbeat and muted organ chords. Finally, things start to build toward the conclusion, wherein Whitney and Billie repeatedly plead, “So doctor won’t you pull the fucking plug?/Won’t you cut the cord?”
While the Blood Brothers never quite wrote pop songs, “Ambulance vs. Ambulance” is about as close as Burn, Piano Island, Burn gets to something that can be described as accessible. Surprisingly, the song sticks to a fairly conventional verse/chorus/verse structure and employs melodies that are both immediate and catchy. As such, it was wisely chosen as the album’s lone single—the band even made a hilariously low budget, horror movie-inspired music video to accompany the song (included on disc one of the reissue).
Henderson’s dexterous bass line deserves much of the credit here, keeping the song grounded through a series of escalating flare-ups. Whitney and Billie, meanwhile, take turns on the mic, reading out lines from a grisly SAT problem on the verses (“Ambulance X extracts several consultants/From the slow, gumming death at the office orifice/Ambulance Y imprisons the sigh/Of the recent amputee and dumps her in the xylophone trees”) and trading high-pitched screams on the choruses. While not quite ready for the mainstream, the song easily became a fan favorite and a centerpiece of Blood Brothers live sets.
Many Blood Brothers songs exploit the fact that the band had two vocalists but few do it as well as “USA Nails”. The song consists of a dialogue between two characters: a woman accused of murdering her infant child (“They found him in some trash can/Blue, all clenched and chewed/But don’t judge me, I’m not his real mother/I couldn’t even recognize his face”) and the sex line worker she uses her one-call-a-day allowance to ring. Naturally, Whitney plays the histrionic mother and Billie, the operator. Billie, in particular, really shines here. Whispering a twisted fantasy into the receiver, he sounds both lascivious and genuinely terrifying. Just before the chorus picks up again, he manages to spit out, “We’ll send you the bill”.
“Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon” is perhaps the best-loved song in the Blood Brothers catalog and it’s easy to see why. The song makes use of many of the Brothers’ most beloved tricks: a low organ line in lieu of bass, explosive choruses, the unexpected appearance of sleigh bells. What’s more, it has a sing-along chorus (“Where is love now?/Ba ba ba ba ba ba”) and a fairly stable beat. During live performances, the audience would clap along during the verses—a feat that would be impossible with just about any other song on Burn, Piano Island, Burn.
By the time we reach album closer, “The Shame”, it might seem like we’ve been battered by every curve ball the Brothers could possibly throw. Three minutes from the song’s close, the band starts to rally around the repeating chant, “Everything is going to be just awful/When we’re around”. The song slowly starts to build toward an explosive finale, picking up layers of guitar and synth with each measure like a sonic snowball. Just before the five and a half minute mark, things really start to ratchet up—the song feels like it could detonate at any minute.
And then, all of a sudden, silence.
While you can read the song’s abrupt ending as a final “fuck you” to the listener (and indeed, many have), there’s something undeniably fitting about the album’s purposefully anticlimactic finale. Not only does it turn the record’s operating principle on its head (all tension, no release), it ends the album with a statement of intent that’s as purposeful as that which opens it. Gimmicky though it might seem, “The Shame” forcefully reiterates the Blood Brothers’ unwavering commitment to challenge their listeners, no matter what the cost.
The reissue of Burn, Piano Island, Burn comes packed with two bonus tracks: a faithful reading of “Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon” from the band’s 2005 Reading Festival performance and “Pink Tarantulas”, the stuttering, dance-punk B-side to “Ambulance vs. Ambulance”. We also get a second disc containing “Jungle Rules Live”, a recording of the band’s set at the 10th anniversary party for Redmond, Washington youth center the Old Firehouse. The band was less than pleased with this performance and with ArtistDirect’s decision to release the recording as a DVD, an action the Brothers feared would be interpreted as a shameless cash grab. Admittedly, the DVD’s production values do leave a bit to be desired. The audio is blown out in parts, the camera work is often sloppy and some of the visuals already feel dated (overhead audience cam, anyone?).
Regardless, the recording captures the Blood Brothers at the height of their powers and provides a much-needed document of their legendary live show (save for a few late night talk show appearances, there’s very little professionally shot footage of the band available). The performance here is characteristically electrifying—the band fires on all cylinders for forty minutes straight and the audience responds in turn, flipping out to each song like it’s the band’s last. Whitney and Billie treat the entire venue as their stage, flinging themselves about wildly and repeatedly diving into the audience. During the last song, when Votolato jumps headfirst into the crowd, guitar and all, no one even bats an eyelid.
The Blood Brothers, “Ambulance vs. Ambulance”