I’ll have to put my cards on the table for this one. Jamison Duffield, Toulouse’s erstwhile guitarist and sometime vocalist, was one of the first people I met at college. Back then he was just an eager kid who wanted to get into the radio station and who seemed to be much better prepared than I was. Nowadays he’s a member of what I can only call a high-capitalist whine unit, peddler of such slogans as “as prices go up expectations go down”. The only reason I mention it—despite the sort of anthropological urge to reveal one’s biases for the benefit of the reader—is that Toulouse seems to hold its roots very close. The culture of our school tended heavily towards Marxist cultural criticism in academics and extreme indie snobbery on the ground. The kids who went there were anxious to start afresh: they demolished their geeky bookworm pasts by starting bands whose only justification was their absurdity, their irreverence, and their preciousness. Toulouse was one of those bands, before the mid-‘90s heroin freaks set in to really prove something. Traces of that rarefied atmosphere still linger on this, the band’s second album: with its emotional distance and monolithic speed, it never smiles but sneers, always anxious to maintain its posture.
On the other hand, there is something interesting about the way Toulouse interweaves cityscape, cultural criticism (which of course in this medium only amounts to screeds and sloganeering), and human emotion. “Broad and Main”, for example, is a sort of love song for a girl who is “walking along by my favorite building”. “Cars and pedestrians, things dissolve into gray” sings our Vocalist (who may be Jamison or relative newcomer Christopher Moisan) but since he knows he’ll be there the very next day (walking along to his temp job, no doubt) he lets himself enjoy the mere sight of her. Similarly, “Every Office Every Weekend” claims that “when I’m with you my time’s my own” over and against the “dull white walls” of the office and its demands upon the body, if not the mind. This song also features a lovely interweaving between the male and the female voice, the only one on the record.
Despite all of this, I wish the members of Toulouse were somehow more invested in the songs they write. There’s something interesting in emotional risk, but there’s none of it to be found on this uniformly sneering album. The pace is always upbeat, never a change in tempo on the whole album, and the feel is always sort of bossa nova or jivey, at times reminiscent in vocal and structure of early Pavement (Westing by Musket and Sextant, when they were still on Drag City—remember, once they get on Matador it’s EVIL EVIL EVIL). In fact Jamison’s vocals seem often to evoke Malkmus’ Fall-inspired cadence and pronunciation, while the guitar and bass seem to reach for something like the Minutemen’s fast fury. Not quite. The best thing holding it together is Sarah Rentz’s tight drumming, and the rest feels all too often like filler.
The lyrics—despite the occasional moments of self-disclosure described above—often tend at best towards the screed and at worst seem like upper-class whining (um, that college Jamison and I attended cost upwards of 25K a year). “Green Light District” seems to be some kind of invective against city planning, with a female voice chanting “north south east west!” in an attempt at anthematic geography. “The Rhetoric of Romance” is nothing more than a shopworn and snide indictment of the dating ritual, whose only redemption is the final line, “Romance is about living” which if nothing else offers a textual nod to emotional complexity.
On the second to last song, “Obrigado”, Toulouse claim that they are “saying really nothing, under terrible delusions”. Would you all mind explaining what the point is, then? I sure would have appreciated at least a rocking good time.