[6 March 2008]
Austin trio the Weird Weeds have long been a source of hometown pride to me. Over the last four years, they’ve slowly become the city’s best experimental rock band. When I say “experimental,” I mean it: their songs tend to be terse, through-composed, and loaded with inexplicable sounds generated from prepared instruments. On first listen, the band’s music can be confusing. Such confusion is inevitable when a band’s drummer plays his snare with a bow, and one of its guitarists plays her instrument with chalk. After multiple listens, though, what initially sounds aleatory ends up betraying immense craft, and songs that at first feel ephemeral soon become indelible. This band is appropriately named: they’re weird, but they’ll grow on you!
On their third (and best) album, I Miss This, the Weird Weeds have slightly streamlined their sound. There are fewer moments in which drummer Nick Hennies sounds like he’s throwing his kit down a flight of stairs. The arrangements aren’t as skittish: songs such as “Red”, “Lies”, and “A Goose” develop grooves that linger for longer than a minute at a time. Last but not least, the band is no longer afraid to get loud. On “Red”, guitarist Sandy Ewen’s distorted chords hit with thunderous force. On “A Goose”, her patented “chalk guitar” technique produces an ear-piercing wail that Hennies’ gunshot snare struggles to overtake. Guitarist Aaron Russell, heretofore content to tether the music with nimble finger-picking, makes his vocal debut on two songs, unveiling a pleasant Robert Wyatt-like croon. I Miss This is the sound of self-actualization at work, the product of a band confident and courageous enough to test its own limits.
The lyrics on I Miss This are filled with inversions that change simple statements into profound paradoxes. On the jazzy opening track, “You Drive Me Crazy”, Hennies and Ewen sing in unison, “It’s not so much what you do, but what you don’t do I like / Don’t drive me crazy”. Then, they invert the lyric: “It’s not so much what you don’t do, but what you do I like / You drive me crazy”. The tone of the song is thus changed from one of admonition to one of admiration. On the title track, Ewen sings, “Find all that you have got / Lose all that you have lost”. Then, she inverts the lyric: “Find all that you have lost / Lose all that you have got”. Don’t get bogged down by the past, she seems to say, but don’t get too comfortable in the present either.
As I Miss This progresses, it becomes a concept album about the dissolution of a relationship. On the gorgeous acoustic ballad “Dream Songs”, Hennies and Ewen lament the difficulty of remembering songs heard in dreams, a subtle metaphor for the inevitability of loss. The lyrics of “Atlas” use mundane details to illustrate the disconnect between a protagonist and his estranged lover: “It’s quiet in the bedroom / Even with my ears against the door… / Hearts are heavy / Lights are low / Even the dogs are still”. The album is front-loaded with aggressive songs, but gets quieter and more diffuse until the aptly-named closing track “Nothing”. This method of sequencing mirrors the trajectory of the average relationship: instead of spontaneously combusting, it just slowly peters out.
The Weird Weeds’ ability to address matters of the heart without stooping to cheap sentimentality is probably their least acknowledged asset. (They didn’t call their previous album Weird Feelings for nothing, you know.) At various points, I Miss This can make you scratch your head, cover your ears, or dance with abandon. If you let it, though, it can also break your heart. Although plenty of rock bands have used emotional anguish as fodder for their music, I can guarantee you that none of them have sounded anything like the Weird Weeds.