The Death of the Cool
The band name comes from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the title comes from David Bowie’s “Changes”, and the sound comes straight from 1990’s trip-hop. Luckily, Clare Quilty’s third album, Face the Strange, actually manages to find an interesting angle on that moribund sub-genre. While Jenn Rhubright’s cold, breathy vocals and Mike Rodi’s sterile, looped beats recall artists like Sneaker Pimps, Esthero, or a dozen other trip-hop artists circa 1997, Clare Quilty’s narcotic sound is less of a calculated pose and more of a natural outgrowth of the band’s lyrical obsessions.
Face the Strange is a claustrophobic album about isolation and increasing alienation from one’s emotion, which is the perfect subject matter from trip-hop’s inevitably cold atmosphere. Trip-hop’s chief flaw was its inability to fully express a wide range of emotions. Chilly and abstract, most trip-hop songs were slick soundtrack pieces that were difficult to connect with emotionally. However, when an album’s main focus is the ennui and emptiness embodied in the term “cool”, a term that has its roots in the detachment felt by heroin-abusing jazzmen, the trip-hop style becomes the ideal medium to deal with this lack of empathy.
The songs on Face the Strange help to reiterated the album’s mood: “Sad Untitled” (an anonymous sense of emptiness), “Numb”, “Tire Me”, etc. “Breathe” and “Tormented Artist” are attacks on a subject who seems to lack something vital and human: “Do you breathe?” wonders in “Breathe”‘s chorus. Still, the narrator of “Tormented Artist” seems to long for the painful solipsism of “Tormented Artist”‘s subject. “Numb” is even more explicit, as the narrator, while acknowledging that she has developed a sense of numbness, that she feels better with this newfound state of being. She feels that the facts that she doesn’t “cry anymore” and that she’s living “without the voices in (her) head” are a worthwhile exchange for not caring anymore. After all, she has now achieved coolness: “I’m the bomb, I’m so dope” she remarks in a voice that isn’t sure if she’s being sarcastic or not.
The music reflects “Numb”‘s narrator’s coolness: dance-floor ready rhythm tracks, complete with an ever-mutating arsenal of beeps, whizzes, and dub effects. Add a little well-laced guitar riffs, and it creates a beautiful concoction of hypnotizing keyboards and Rhubright’s opiatic cooing. This is trip-hop at its best, a resurrection of all things great about this once vibrant sub-genre. “Tremble”, the most human and, not coincidentally, most fascinating track on the album, could find its way to the clubs easily. It is so club-ready that the band presents a remix by Pink Noise, which would be a Billboard club hit if the band did not hold the dance scene in contempt. “Glitterbug”, a satirical attack on rave culture that the world needed about a decade ago, features the narrator standing transfixed in the false utopia of the dancefloor ignoring the reality of the ecstasy-induced vomiting of the teenagers around her: “It’s okay, we’re all on K”. The dancefloor is presented as the ultimate escape from humanness, the lessons learned from “Numb” on a grand scale. “Oops, crash”, the track ends.
Face the Strange suffers from a common problem, with the album’s best and catchiest tracks all coming at the start of the album, making the album’s second half a bit of a comedown. However, it does feature a standout track in Clare Quilty’s bold reworking of Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”. The band replaces the rocking intensity of the original, one of Bowie’s greatest anthems, and replaces it with mechanical thoroughness. The main riff is captured, freeze-dried, and relegated to the background, while Rhubright listlessly goes through the motions of reciting the lyrics with the same amount of emotion that she sings the brainless “doo dah dah doo"s. The ferocious teenage lust of the original is long gone, as the band replaces the song’s sexual ambiguity as less of a result of a radical destruction of gender norms and more of an example of total sexual indifference. This cover perfectly how Clare Quilty has evolved from its rock origins into a slick, yet enticing, techno-pop outfit that explores the growing disassociation between being human and “feeling” human.