It takes all of three seconds to realize They Shoot Horses Don’t They? has really quite little in common with the exhausting 1969 film of the same name. The latter happens to be a subtly brilliant period piece depicting the raw desperation of the Great Depression and paced slower than a coma. The Vancouver-based band, however, is equal parts whimsical and spastic, combining seemingly unrelated elements into a unique musical frenzy alight with paranoia and joy. It’s jumbled, for sure, a mess, even. But when has a chaotic mess ever sounded this joyfully unhinged? “Sing this noise / This drum / Well, here we come”, announces vocalist Nut Brown on album opener “One Last Final Push”, and the band proceeds to do just that. The band’s sophomore effort is unlikely to convert any of those who heard the band’s 2006 debut, Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, as an overly grating slice of insanity. Conversely, it will no doubt satisfy those who gravitate towards music with a hint of the unsettling and unhinged. Count me in.
Dissecting the diverse influences in They Shoot Horses’ music is akin to picking out individual spices from a Thanksgiving dinner. The choppy guitar textures evoke early Modest Mouse, Brown’s alternation between tortured moan and hysterical yelp occasionally reeks of David Byrne, all pervaded by a jittery brass section stolen from your high school marching band. The overall seasick atmosphere and complex arrangements, though, have garnered the group comparisons to everything from Pere Ubu to Captain Beefheart at his most chaotic peak. Throw in a dash of Animal Collective and Mr. Bungle for good measure and stir heavily. This absurd fusion has inspired the genre label Circus Rock. The band (or is cult a better word?) was formed back in 2003 by Brown and drummer Julia. They Shoot Horses’ convulsive energy and damn near limitless originality puts them right at home with Kill Rock Stars, alongside big-name label-mates The Decemberists and Deerhoof. While all the elements of Boo Hoo Hoo Boo are still in place, the ultimate effect is creepier, sacrificing much of that album’s delightfully hooky instincts. Welcome to the world of Pick Up Sticks. Tread with caution and leave your sanity at the door.
“What Is That?” is my personal favorite on the album, a fantastic example of this unique amalgam at work. The fuzzy synthesizer competes with a call-and-response chorus of circus-like horns. As per usual, the lyrics express wonder and fright towards mundane aspects of nature. “What is that there? / Is it sweet? Is it hanging from a vine? / And it’s mine oh mine”. The vocals are a bundle of nerves up to the chorus, at which point Brown switches to a mildly disturbing falsetto that would fit right in on Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) (I can’t be the only one to immediately think of “Put A Straw Under Baby”, can I?). Similarly, “The Hallway” turns a simple stroll through a hallway into a treacherous journey, leading into another falsetto-laden chorus.
On the flipside, single “A Place Called La” is as blatantly poppy as the group gets, with a real chord progression! Played on a church organ, no less! Needless to say, the frantic vocals and oddly observational lyrics (“You’re not speaking clear! / You’re not here at all! / Your blank stare scares me half to death!”) aren’t exactly gonna attract any John Mayer fans, but it’s the thought that counts. The group enters an exhilarating build-up of intensity and screaming (“Does anyone here know a place called La?!”) that I imagine must be a truly exuberant display of energy when performed live. For fans, it’s reminiscent of the catharsis that arrived in the finale of Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, during the final two minutes of “Apple”.
Another highlight is “The Guest”, which starts with an off-kilter acoustic guitar riff and only builds from there. The entire concept of traditional melody is chewed up and spit back in a warped, deformed fashion, leaning more towards layering than conventional chord changes. The line between deranged and just plain obnoxious is a thin one, but They Shoot Horses Don’t They? tread it with care. Then there’s “Busted Bell”, which opens with a vocal melody circling around a burping horn part amidst a swamp of reverb. Unfortunately, the rest of the song fails to ever lock into a groove and stick with it, effectively preventing it from having the same effect as “A Place Called La”. On “You Know Me”, Brown pushes a sing-songy melody in ¾ atop a layer of crashes and moans until the two-minute mark, when the band suddenly switches to a (nearly) acapella refrain. Disorienting? Check! Abrupt? Check! They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Finding joy in sudden movements since 2003!
On “Wrong Directions”, the album closes on a triumphant note. Listen to Brown shriek in unison with a guitar riff straight off of Franz Ferdinand’s debut and try not to dance. By this point, some listeners will be enthralled by the unique nervous-breakdown-on-tape that just ended; others pressed STOP a minute into track one, and that’s just dandy, as well. The point remains that those who prefer “Revolution 9” over “Hey Jude” or After Hours over Raging Bull could do much worse than seek out Pick Up Sticks. It doesn’t quite match the spontaneous (and yes, tuneful) wallop of Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, but it does prove that ‘wondrous cacophony’ is not always a contradiction in terms. As to where They Shoot Horses Don’t They? can possibly go from here, the only response comes in the form of one of the album’s song titles. “That’s a Good Question”.