Cubist renditions of existential angst
There are two kinds of chaos. One is that primordial ooze that contains everything in an undifferentiated mass—the beginning sort of chaos, best approximated in musical terms by drone. The other is the disorder that comes when things fall apart, the rules no longer apply, certainties fade and floating anxiety is the only palpable mood. It is this decadent sort of chaos that Untied States evokes in their second full-length album, a detuned, oddly timed, infinitely creative but undisciplined howl at modern life.
Consider for instance, the existential problem of other people, necessary—especially if you’re young and horny—but unknowable. Untied States attacks the issue in a postmodern break-up song called “It’s Not Goodbye”, which begins in lonely, reverberating keyboard notes and erupts into assaults of frustrated rage. “You’re an enigma… seeming/ Dying to meet you at the end of it all”, singer Skip Engelbrect despairs, his wail running headlong into abrasive spirals of juddering guitar, and despite the complexity, the dense web of sounds that surrounds him, he is essentially alone.
Or, take the horrors of war, as Untied States does in “Martyrs Have Nothing to Live For”. Here a jittery web of guitar dissonance and irregular drum explosions coalesces into occasional structured song fragments, as a slurry, desperate voice moans things like “But I don’t want to die for/ What I can’t enjoy” or “I’ve got this casual casualty/ I’ve got this casual reality/ But, oh, martyrs have nothing to live for.” Quietly discordant intervals build tension while oddly tuned guitars plink out jerky no wave rhythms. Architecture within the song is an illusion, something that the next firebomb of feedback will rip right through. There’s a violence implied, a confusion embedded, an inarticulate response to nightmare scenarios that feels very in tune what we see every night on the 7 o’clock news. Despair comes from realizing that there is simply no authentic way to react to a bewildering set of stimuli. As Engelbrecht sings later, in “You Own Your Own”, “The more I try to feel/ The more I am faking/ The more I try to fix/ The more I keep breaking.”
Retail Detail draws freely from the post-punk legacy, borrowing alternate tunings from Sonic Youth, rattletrap slyness from Les Savvy Fav and jerk-rhythmed, junk-percussioned funk from early Liars (“We Don’t Have to Climb” sounds very much like “Every Day Is a Child with Teeth”). Like The Fall, they play with short, semi-sensical phrases, which gain humor and resonance through repetition; lyrics like “My cause is my curse” and “Martyrs have nothing to live for” become inexplicably meaningful over the course of their songs. The band intercuts these more developed tracks with short, atmospheric intervals, the clocktower dissonance of “I Mile Aisle”, the silent film organ notes of “Retail Detail” and the piano and abrasive guitar duel of “Retell the Tale”.
The absence of rules and continual violation of structure makes Retail Detail somewhat hard to follow at first, yet this same unexpectedness is what ultimately makes the band interesting… if not especially joyful. It’s the sound of clever despair, completely free of strictures and swaggering over its lawlessness, but maybe wishing that someone, somewhere would lay down some limits.
// Notes from the Road
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