[8 April 2008]
Can you fault a band for taking risks?
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, as this particular collective has come to be known, is familiar with taking risks. Now in its eighth year of recorded history and given its origins as an offshoot of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, this is a band with a long history of deviating from traditional songwriting styles. Still, some risks are bigger than others, and 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons feels like a big one.
Most obviously, there’s the danger that a group like this particular Tra-La-La Band can swallow itself in its unapologetic, flailing attempts at true artistic merit. There’s the ink-drawn cover art with the tracklist on the front, the tracklist itself that starts at track 13, the fact that no track is under 13 minutes long (there’s a pattern here… I’m just… not… seeing it), and the lyrics that feature lines like “the hangman’s got a hard-on” and “Ahoy! Ye bland plump boys / Go tear wings for vainful gain”. These are the types of things that would be mocked endlessly in other less capable and less established hands, but are now taken with a grain of salt given that both Godspeed and Silver Mt. Zion have proven capable in the past of bearing the weight of their aspirations.
More specifically, there’s the fact that over the course of all of these years of experience, bandleader Efrim Menuck has quite obviously gained a little bit of confidence in the expression of his art, particularly the part of it that comes out of his mouth. 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons is the most vocals-oriented release he has yet put out, a fact that could be seen as either a positive or a negative depending on what you think of Menuck’s vocal style. For the majority of the album, he sports a broken tenor that sounds a bit like a cross between Win Butler and Damon Albarn, particularly those Gorillaz moments when Albarn sounds particularly winded and breathy. It’s an excellent voice, actually, to match with the up-with-art vibe that the rest of the pieces of the album are so unapologetic about, but it’s not a pretty voice, or a pleasing voice, or an enjoyable voice, in any conceivable way. More than anything, the voice is a vessel for the poetry, which, as touched on previously, may be an acquired taste.
So despite the vast potential for all of these risks to add up to an album that falls flat on its face and twitches a couple of times before melting into the floor, it actually holds up pretty well, at least for a little while. After the brief, squeaky, peaceful feedback of the introduction offered over the course of tracks one through 12, Menuck offers the really rather brilliant “1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound”, a beautifully epic piece of art-rock artistry that makes a point of droning its best bits into the listener’s head for minutes at a time, making it not just interesting, but nigh-unforgettable. “Give me a god damned shovel / I’ll dig my own damn hole,” sings Menuck, under a wall of violins, guitars, and what can only be described as a tremendous rock ‘n’ roll beat, and it’s easy to get lost in the sheer scale of it for all 14-plus glorious minutes of it. Would that the rest of 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons could live up to the example of its first 25%.
Unfortunately, it can’t. The title track is a movement-based song that careens wildly from mood to mood, always sort of perturbed, but never purposeful enough to do anything about it, while “Black Waters Blowed / Engine Broke Blues” is an utterly forgettable 13 minutes in which the instruments play chaotically but do too good a job of getting out of Menuck’s way when he decides he wants to contribute some vocals to the conversation. And then there’s “Blind”, which has its lovely uplifting moments, but there’s a good chance you’ll have turned it off before those good moments happen as it spends a good five minutes in a repetitive mush of plucked guitars, violins, and Menuck’s yelping.
13 Blues for Thirteen Moons sounds like a band taken just a little bit further in one direction than it was ever meant to go. It’s hard to fault the ambitions of Mr. Menuck, and perhaps he satisfied whatever artistic muse inspired him to go in such a vocal-heavy, superficially artsy direction. If so, then good for him. That doesn’t, however, mean that we have to enjoy it. Expect to be challenged by 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, but don’t expect ever to be truly excited by it.