[13 September 2009]
On the album-closing title track for Thrice’s 2009 release, Beggars, singer Dustin Kensrue humbly admits above a down tempo drum accompaniment and gentle telecaster strumming that “if there’s one thing I know in this life/we are beggars all.” As the capstone to a hugely understated craft rock album, the song rings like a proud pauper, illuminating a band embroiled in an almost desperate sounding quest for simplicity and autonomy.
Earthy and spartan, Beggars embodies a curious moment of transition in Thrice’s career. Having evolved from their hard-nosed origins in grinding post-punk to the machinations of high production and tonal experimentation with the lush, electronic-inspired landscapes of Vheissu (2005) and The Alchemy Index (2007), the Southern California quartet helmed an unlikely evolution towards a basic group driven groove.
Beggars, recorded in a home studio in Orange County and produced by the band itself, shuns the multi-textured layers of their progressive albums in favor of a simplistic, cohesive sound where guitars, bass, drums, and vocals wash together. The result is an album that will disappoint listeners geared towards the subtly nuanced, thoughtful suites in Thrice’s previous three outings. Instead, an exciting interpretation of low-fidelity hard rock captures the band not as discreet instruments and creative voices but as a complete fabric of folksy, physical electricity.
In tracks like “The Weight”, “At the Last”, and “Talking Through Glass”, Thrice achieves a warm vintage room sound where their instruments blend together in the uniform shades of riff-engaged rock. Pressing and pleasantly formulaic, Kensrue and fellow guitarist Teppei Taranishi build energetic songs off of locking guitars that dapple with simple counter melodies. These tracks are constructed with some nuance, but their stark beauty is in the way melodic and rhythmic parts coalesce naturally without complication, like a band united in a rare moment of complete shared vision.
With frugal fervence, the musical compilation on Beggars is a loyal sonic companion to the band’s somewhat bleak, dusty image of a world where true wealth cannot be measured in dollars but instead in a wealth of spirit or destiny. Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics combine resolute biblical imagery and brief pontifications on the nature of humanity within the guise of a poor wandering bard. An appropriate metaphor for a trimmed down, essentialist album, the beggar figure seems to appeal to Kensrue for its simplicity and artlessness within a world of pretention. The embrace of such a moralistic lyrical backbone is the hallmark of an album whose words echo with a tint of disenchantment and detachment from a world that Kensrue illuminates as painfully authoritarian.
Rife with sailing and nautical metaphors, Kensrue evokes a sort of electric Woody Guthrie. Adrift and alone in a world of injustice, he croaks and moans his woes through metaphor and allusion. With candlelight wisdom in “Circles” he admonishes his fellow humans for their sins: “True Progress means/Matching the world to the vision in our heads/We always change/The vision instead.” From humble musings on human nature, Thrice licks into the next track “Doublespeak”, an obvious homage to Orwellian realities where insidious totalitarian hegemony controls consciousness. An air of smoky cynicism accompanies the chorus tidings: “There’s a jackboot toe tap keeping time/While the children dance and play” that encapsulates Beggars’ suspicious derision at its most potent.
Beyond intriguing lyrical motifs, the album’s true strengths are in its brooding waves of gloomy, melancholy notes. At times pitiful and eerie, the quartet turns from sheer power to evocative restraint in clear, crisp fireside moments where flickering guitar shadows mix with lyrical myths in a dark apocalyptic glow. In “Circles” ethereal guitars and delayed vocals capture an understated hopelessness in humanity. Later, the refreshing mud tones of a Rhodes Organ build over subdued, incandescent guitar ambiences as Kensrue preaches for deliverance and rapture with his destiny in “Wood & Wire”.
In these brief moments and a handful of others on the album, Thrice approaches the sort of unilateral grace their experiment in minimalism aimed towards. Their reliance on heavy guitars and screeching vocals borders on the pedestrian, while their soft embrace of thoughtful, relaxed movements and haunting analog harmonies creates a terrifying stillness wrapped in introspection and creeping malaise.
Neither pompous nor polished, Beggars embraces the musical sensibility and lyrical mindset of poverty, scarcity. Though a thoughtful record woven with intricacy, energy and subtly elaborate thematics and musical interactions between a powerful quartet, the album has an impoverished aftertaste. Lost in the group-oriented mix is Eddie Breckenridge’s spacious and punchy bass along with the wide tonal instrumentation that made their latest efforts so compelling.
As concept, the album works well. Earthen, spartan, and basic, Beggars excels as an exercise in thematic sound. However, when heard as a musical evolution away from polish and intricate production that encapsulated Thrice’s previous three releases, the album falls flat.