Great seventh albums are a rare phenomenon. For a band even to stay together long enough to create a discography seven LPs deep would seem to run contrary to the fast-burn Dionysian spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and fly in the face of the plainly difficult dynamics of human relationships. The Stooges in their original incarnation, spavined by chemicals and behavior that Rasputin might have considered “erratic”, were never likely to remain intact long enough in mind and body to reach the exotic sphere of a septenary release. And Simon and Garfunkel only got as far as their fifth album before realizing they couldn’t stand each other.
These adversities, inherent to the life of a rock band, make the mere existence of Lifestyle by Silkworm remarkable, and the achievements therein nothing short of astonishing. Therefore it is a privilege to say that this glorious seventh album by the Chicago trio of Andy Cohen (guitar), Michael Dahlquist (drums), and Tim Midyett (bass) — Chicago by way of Seattle, by way of their native Missoula — will be the subject of this Between the Grooves series. Each week, for the next 12 weeks, we will examine a track from the album, picking things apart, reveling in Lifestyle‘s joyful weltgeist, bunching our fists, shouting its choruses, nodding our heads, pondering its endless idiosyncrasies, and grinning in full thrall of its giddy intelligence.
There will be a close reading of lyrics. This will involve critical imagination and wild speculation, as any discussion of “swim instructor’s daughter(s)” inevitably must. There will be consideration of drum fills. This may involve the language of sports, such as one may use when discussing home runs or knock-outs or other unlikely physical feats, as any discussion of one of rock’s great drummers inevitably must. There will be deliberation upon guitar solos. These will not seek to adumbrate or circumscribe the subject, for this would be akin to trying to capture the beauty of a spider’s web by folding it and putting it in your pocket.
In relation to this and all other points, it is not possible or desirable to try to explain a work of art. Still, hopefully, the series will convey at least a twinge of the excitement of hearing this album, offer assurance as to why Silkworm should always be the next thing on your turntable, and explicate more seriously some of the reasons why Lifestyle is significant, why is it as good as rock music gets, and why it is worthy of a place in any canon of popular music.
It is interesting to reflect on the context of Lifestyle within the Silkworm discography. Having begun by stating that great seventh albums are a rare phenomenon, let’s consider three of them: the Beatles’ Revolver, the Fall’s The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, and Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods, classic seventh sons and daughters all. They are also albums that are arguably stronger than any of their six predecessors. They are all recognized as landmarks in the careers of their particular artists. We may have arguments about Hex Enduction Hour or Dig Me Out, but both The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall and The Woods undeniably represented expansions in the palettes of the Fall and Sleater-Kinney, which positive critical consensus duly acknowledged.
Without wanting to annul our series before it has begun, it is worth noting that this is not the case with Lifestyle. In most senses, it is not the culmination of years of gradual technical and stylistic development. Silkworm did not finally, after years of climbing, pull themselves on to the peak of Mt. Rockmore by their fingertips and plant a flag marked Lifetstyle. For while it is a particularly sweet Silkworm album, Lifestyle is one of maybe seven or eight unimpeachably first-rate albums the band made. Starting with their third album Libertine Silkworm went on an almost unprecedented run of consistency, and if one was to be critical, those first two albums are at worst ‘very good to great’.
The achievement of such a feat of endurance and excellence suggests something about the band’s fealty and commitment to one another and their art. That might seem a given: Surely any band that lasts for seven albums or more must be built on these foundations? This is not always the case, though. Consider two of the examples above. The Beatles operated when bands recorded albums in an afternoon and released multiple long players a year, a crazy schedule compared to today’s pop landscape where an album can take years to prink, hone, and focus group test before ‘dropping’. In an unprecedented burst of accelerated innovation, the Beatles released Revolver only about three years after their debut. Things happen fast when you’re smashing atoms. Their recording career was a relative sprint, not an exercise in longevity.
Also, pace the Fall, Mark E. Smith’s commitment to the band and his art is unquestionable and long term. But by The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall the band had already been through an almost complete personnel change from the line-up that recorded their debut. Even today, only one man is ever really sure who is in The Fall at any given moment. By contrast, Silkworm’s career ran for 18 years, 15 years from their debut single in 1992 to their final posthumously released Chokes! EP in 2006, with one lineup change in that entire time.
Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
So if Lifestyle is ‘just’ another classic album from a band with unusually strong bonds to one another and seriousness to their artistic intent which is lifelong, then why choose Lifestyle as the subject of this series? Why not any of their other albums, Firewater or Developer, for example? Perhaps the answer begins with Hiroshi Kimura’s beautiful cover art. An airplane sits on a runway. A line of people walks across the yellowed tarmac towards its steps, its open door. They are watched by a shorter line standing behind a railing on the balcony of the airport, relatives, and friends waving off loved ones as they embark on their journey. It is not air-travel as we know it, certainly not in 2015, with its stresses, shoe x-raying, and air marshals.
The ambience is uterine, a tranquil scene in pacifying tones and gently rounded edges. It is a world that draws the viewer into it. Is the destination holiday? Business? It doesn’t really matter. The passengers are soon to be moving, traveling to someplace, from this scene to another. It is the possibility of newness and refreshment which is intoxicating. When the plane door reopens, they will be somewhere else, possibly some time else. They can even be someone else if the fancy takes them. Above the whole scene, in the softly dissolving sky, in handwritten script floats the word “Silkworm” and below it “Lifestyle”.
Once inside — here briefly and for the benefit of those unacquainted with the Silkworm sound — certain features of the music become apparent. This is a band who bring the rock. Continents of it. At the same time, both songwriters, Andy Cohen and Tim Midyett, are, as the critic Ian MacDonald elegantly described Paul McCartney, “compulsively fertile in melody”. Hooks stack upon hooks stacks upon hooks. The lyrics are always witty, clever, and unusual. Another word for “unusual” here might be “poetic”, language reconfigured and recontextualized so that it becomes strange and new.
All of this seems very nice, but it still doesn’t explain why Lifestyle. Plenty of bands rock. Plenty of bands have tunes. It isn’t enough to say that on this album Silkworm simply rock harder, have better tunes, than anyone else. They do, but that’s no argument at all. This series and the weeks that follow will allow us to get into the detail of this and leave no doubt at all as to why Silkworm and why Lifestyle, but for the time being in trying to explain why the music of Silkworm is so exciting to listen to we return to the opening of the airplane door. Richard Rorty describes the project of Proust as one of redescription. On Rembrance of Things Past he writes:
“Proust’s novel is a network of small, interanimating contingencies. The narrator might never have encountered another madeleine. The newly impoverished Prince de Guermantes did not have to marry Madame Verdurin: He might have found some other heiress. Such contingencies make sense only in retrospect – and they make a different sense every time redescription occurs.” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), p.100)
As Rorty explains, redescription becomes a method for autonomy. By redescribing people from many different perspectives and places in time, Proust subverts the notion there is a single privileged viewpoint to take and is thus able to free himself from descriptions that others have offered of him. This is the sense of freedom conveyed by the songs contained on Lifestyle, an unanchoring from expectation and cliché. The subject matter is so varied and obtuse, and its delivery so vital, that the songs seem to be constantly shifting, their narrators perpetually redescribing their strange situations or, rather, redescribing their situations in strange ways. It is the newness and self-creation at the opening of the airplane door. It seems possible that each time one plays Lifestyle it might contain a completely new set of songs.
The sense of contingency, or perhaps the absence of, to use Rorty’s term, a “final vocabulary” at work within Lifestyle is encouraged by Steve Albini’s recording. The band sound dramatically live, each song the capture of an unrepeatable performance, a single moment in time. Nothing feels certain. Everything is in motion. Traditional rock music often alludes to the metaphysical and the eternal. It strives for the sublime. It borrows rhetoric from religion, casting the rock star as a long-haired shaman or golden god channeling the numinous power of Rock, his followers standing before the high altar, arms aloft awaiting high wattage salvation. The music of Silkworm rejects sublimity, its infinity, and permanence, as an illusion. Beauty instead is the aim. As Rorty explains:
“Beauty, depending as it does on giving shape to a multiplicity, is notoriously transitory, because it is likely to be destroyed when new elements are added to that multiplicity. Beauty requires a frame, and death will provide that frame.” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), p.100)
In this case consider the recording as death, the final framing and ordering of the multiplicity contained within. The thrill of Lifestyle is that in its redescriptions it recognizes and conveys a permanent Now. To a bed of vital, dynamic music the narrators of the songs often look backward but, just for that instant, we are remembering with them, running through town, lounging on Capri, or in a Cadillac outside the Grand Ole Opry. The moment, that world fills the air, and then it is gone. It is this that makes the music of Silkworm so beautiful and exciting.
We will attempt to grab these moments and examine why Lifestyle is one of the most ceaselessly joyful albums you will ever hear. We will stand on the Higgins Bridge. We will contend with raging bulls. We may even have to run from Motörhead — that is still up for discussion.
With a brief and elegant run of notes, bassist Tim Midyett gently announces the opening of “Contempt”, the first track on Silkworm’s Lifestyle, the album which is the subject of this Between the Grooves series. It’s so slight that a listener still settling down after dropping the needle might miss it. Suddenly, all at once, the rest of the band, including Andy Cohen, the singer on “Contempt”, join in. However, the vibe here is unusual. If Silkworm have a reputation (and that is meant in the most speculative sense of the conditional, i.e., “Does Silkworm’s music have a general reputation?”), then perhaps it is as a dude’s band, a point noted by fan Dan Mohr in Seth Pomeroy’s 2013 Silkworm documentary Couldn’t You Wait?, a treasure of a film and a source we’ll turn to more than once in the coming weeks. Silkworm: Three dudes who make dude music. Big guitars. Big drums. Songs about World War II. Songs about life on the road. Songs about Julius Caesar. Music to go with steaks and beer. For goodness sake, Tim Midyett is even the inventor of a delicious, world-class meat rub. Dudes!
In that context, albeit a disputable one, “Contempt” is immediately incongruous. “Do you like my thighs and my feet? / Oh yes, my dear / You’re heavenly,” coos Andy. “You’re the finest girl to ever visit Capri.” This is the same Andy Cohen who opened the album Firewater with a bark of, “No more simple tunes / No more easy poon.” As previously noted: Dudes. Here though, his usual, gruffish singing voice is replaced by something delicate. He sounds more like his fellow Silkworm lead singer, Tim, but much softer still. Feminine, in fact. And then there’s that opening exchange — it is an exchange — about his heavenly thighs. Our narrator is a woman.
The music rolls along leisurely, mid-paced, the Silkworm norm of bass, drums, and guitar shot through with prettifying organ played by Brett Grossman. Maybe it is encouraged by Capri’s mention, but the feeling is of warmth, of sunlight, and clear blue seas. “It’s the last time I’ll ever leave home / Because my memory is here in Rome,” continues Andy, “And now I’m loose, after a vicious afternoon,” his voice a sigh of plaintive ennui. The title of the song gives a clue; our narrator’s problem soon becomes clear: “I used to think you were a man / The American turned the screw / Keep away from me / I’ll keep away from you.” Somewhere between Capri and Rome, a relationship has fractured and, judging by the language’s harshness, irreparably so.
“Contempt” takes the 1963 Jean-Luc Godard movie of the same name (Le Mépris) as its source text. Starring Brigitte Bardot (she of lovely thighs and feet), Michel Piccoli (her husband, the one who used to be a man), and Jack Palance (that ugly American), it tells the story of the marriage of Paul and Camille, and more particularly its sharp ending. Jeremy Prokosch, an American movie producer, is currently shooting a movie adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey on the island of Capri. Directed by Fritz Lang, playing himself in Contempt, the production has run into difficulties. Lang’s artistic vision for the movie conflicts with Prokosch’s cheap commercial concerns, and so the latter asks Paul to come to Capri to rewrite the script.
From almost the moment the offer arrives, it comes between Paul and Camille. And when they meet Prokosch, a tower of hubris bordering on malevolence matters quickly escalate, and their relationship degenerates. To get a slightly frivolous idea of what Contempt is like, conjure up the most stereotypically French movie you can imagine, which isn’t A Bout de Souffle. Characters, always passionate or studiedly indifferent, seem to be on the verge of existential crises as a matter of course, and they deliver lines like, “I’ve noticed the more we doubt, the more we cling to a false lucidity, in the hope of rationalizing what feelings have made murky.” The movie (Contempt) is a masterpiece, a high watermark of post-war culture.
“Contempt”, however, is not a simple crib of its source, slavishly duplicating its story or themes. Indeed the inadequate synopsis above relates more to the plot than the song does. Andy Cohen uses movies as lyrical inspiration elsewhere in the Silkworm discography, most notably in the song “Ice Station Zebra” on the album Developer, and in both the cases, the outcome is the same in that what we get is a completely new text. The song quotes very specific details from Contempt. For example, in addition to “Capri” and “Rome”, our narrator later mentions “Fritz Lang” and “Homer”. By including some clear aspects of the source and omitting others, what we get is a vivid picture of a particular world, but one skewed and different from that of the movie.
Indeed, by leaving certain features absent and refusing to offer a facsimile of the plot, intriguing gaps are left that the listener herself must fill in. Furthermore, the embellishments upon the movie and its characters, which the song makes, have a warping effect that pushes the relationship between movie and song well beyond original and copy or source and translation. For example, Jack Palance pulls many grins and grimaces in Contempt, but enigmatically describing the American as wearing “a rictus of pain”, as the narrator of “Contempt” does, creates an impression separate from anything in the movie. Knowing Contempt does not provide all the answers to “Contempt”.
It is a perfect opening track. Its strangeness sets the listener up for what is to come in the rest of Lifestyle. The lyrics are obtuse. Andy’s delivery is different from usual. I mean, he’s playing Brigitte Bardot! “Contempt” doesn’t even have a guitar solo, and Silkworm are a band with serious weaponry in that department. The track sustains its mood of tender and agreeable melancholy, as described above, right to the end, punctuated only by a well-judged, lolloping piano solo by Brett Grossman before the final verse; any more tightly wound or any looser and it wouldn’t have fitted.
This strange story of a shattered relationship is poignant but never doleful. Any hint of despondency is immediately overtaken by the drama and intrigue of the picture that the narrator creates. By starting on foreign territory – musically, lyrically, and literally in Rome and on Capri – “Contempt” reminds us that with Silkworm, nothing is ever really usual and that our journey through Lifestyle could take us anywhere.
2. “Slave Wages”
Lifestyle‘s opening trio of tracks ensures its classic status even at this early point in the album. It’s not just the quality of the songs, but their sequencing and how they complement one another, easing the listener into the journey and then quickening the pace with each step. “Slave Wages” is the centerpiece of the triptych.
As the dreamy chords of “Contempt” die away and the feminine wiles of Andy Cohen recede in a Tyrrhenian heat haze, the listener’s attention is jolted by a chiming, circling guitar pattern. It is irresistible. It also represents that prenominate quickening of pace, the acceleration from “Contempt” that will continue through “Slave Wages” on to the next track and propel the listener through the first quarter of the album.
After the exoticism and torrid, existential Franco-angst of “Contempt”, we are presented with a subject that seems closer to home, namely the struggles and stresses of the down at heel musician. Although it seems more relatable and more familiar than “Contempt” — music about music or music-making — as always, Silkworm approach things in a unique fashion. It’s Tim Midyett’s first song on the album, and it is spectacular, not only for that compelling opening melody that sinks its teeth in and won’t let go, nor just for the richness and wittiness of the lyrics. More than that, like much of Tim’s work, “Slave Wages” is a compressed, complex masterpiece that covers a lot of ground with an uncommon economy.
The first verse presents a droll portrait of the under-appreciated musician’s living quarters: “Living in a walk-in closet / The carpet clots / The cat hasn’t had its shots / Sad, sad listing on the web page of / Some real estate agent who is just starting out.” It’s a scene of comic dilapidation as if from Rising Damp or The Young Ones. The introduction to this series referred to the poetry of Silkworm’s lyrics. Straightaway, “Slave Wages” demonstrates that that was not hyperbole or gilding of the lily. If aliens land and demand to know the definition of the word “poetry”, then the phrase “The carpet clots” is as good an example as any to present to these intergalactic wannabe-bohemians. This metaphorical expression, almost akin to pathetic fallacy, with its alliteration and originality of diction, conveys its meaning in a new and distinct way and with a redoubtable sense of grotesquerie. However, typically with Silkworm, before we are allowed to really linger on that gross image and be drawn downwards to the depths of despair, the moment is undercut with humor and the cat that “hasn’t had its shots”.
As the verse zips along, each line is punctuated by an irresistible descending guitar melody. It is a relation to the chiming opening lines, and it sounds like chewing delicious bubblegum feels. But as absorbing as the verses are, it is all a tease for the chorus. While the opening verse is sung gently, not far from spoken, the chorus is different. There’s a mighty whomp from drummer Michael Dahlquist and the song leaps, a signal for Tim to throw himself into the lyric: “Up in a tree / I’ll want to be what someone else is not / It ain’t a lot / I’m feeling it now / It’s all coming down.” It seems to be an expression of why the narrator puts up with all the frustrations of a life making music. The exhilaration has a price though, as the final lines acknowledge, wryly returning to the hardships detailed in the verses: “My sleep relies on valerian tea / And the slave wages I’m accumulating.” Surprisingly this is currently the only known mention of valerian tea in all of rock music.
From the opening riff through to the end of the first chorus, “Slave Wages” builds. Each new element is an advancement on the last. It feels as if the track is getting faster, louder, and bigger when it isn’t particularly doing any of these things in reality. It seems unclear how it can maintain this trajectory through to the end. The answer though, perhaps lies in the character of the narrator. At least judging from the first verse, the song’s subject matter may seem to be disappointment or frustration, but the presiding emotion is never despondency. Humour and esoterica are the tools of a great raconteur, not a miserabilist. It is this distinction that provides a clue to the song’s grand finale.
Tim’s next trick may seem minor, and a simple description like any description of a great song will not do it justice. Still, it is yet another detail, heaped upon all those other little details and devices, that serves to keep the listener of “Slave Wages” transfixed. The final verse begins: “Took the notes, hoaxes, jokes / Flushed them down the toilet now / Had to see you just one more time / Make sure the vibes were still sublime.” Are those “notes, hoaxes, (and) jokes” songs?
The second half of the verse: “I was skinny back then / Had a concave chest / My hair was white from the sun / No better no worse / I’d call it a wash / Just had to find out if I still had doubts.” A beat and then straight into the final chorus. Tim’s ‘trick’ here emphasizes the difference between written verse and lyrics that are intended to be sung. “I was skinny back then” et cetera are equivalent to the “Living in a walk-in closet” lines in the first verse. However, what Tim effectively does this time is rearrange the syllables. He sings, “I was skinny back then / Had a concave chest” without pausing, running the two lines together. The printed lyrics are as above, but on record, they become something more like “I was skinny back then had a / Concave chest.” This adhoc enjambment shuffles the lyric’s beats and aligns “I was skinny back then” with Michael’s bass drum. It may seem a minor detail, but its effect seems to separate the line from the song momentarily. The lyric jumps out of the speakers and becomes maybe the most memorable line of the entire track. It is the move of a master songwriter with an expert grasp of the content of lyrics and the importance of the phatic in his art. This is someone who knows how to write a pop song who knows how to hold a listener’s attention.
The final line is a fitting climax to a song so well-judged: “Just had to find out if I still had doubts.” In the context of everything that has preceded it, this professed uncertainty about a life in music turns the song into a kind of recusatio, typically a poem where the narrator throws his hands up and claims to be unable or unwilling to write to his usual standard or in a particular style, often while doing exactly what he says he can’t. Isn’t this the case with the narrator of “Slave Wages”? The narrator who flushes away all those notes, hoaxes, and jokes while dazzling us with his composition?
“Slave Wages” is an expert and perfectly realized pop song which confesses doubts about its own composition. And yet, the narrator answers all this uncertainty in the most emphatic way imaginable with a full demonstration of his talents. Accommodation may be crumby, sleep may be herbal, but there can be no possible doubt that somehow out of this, our narrator has created something special. The song shows how the value of exceptional art outweighs the difficulties surrounding its creation. The final insistence of “Slaves Wages”, despite its explicit protestations, is that, even though circumstances may be trying and popular applause elusive, if the artist can put up with dirty micro-apartments and valerian tea hangovers, then the enduring greatness of music such as this can make it worthwhile.
3. “Treat the New Guy Right”
If “Slave Wages” was not an international hit, not number one across the globe, and not the overground smash and instigator of novelty dance crazes it should have been, then “Treat the New Guy Right” was also not the follow-up single that knocked it from the top of the charts and began its unbroken 20-week run of domination. All of which is not to mourn Lifestyle‘s lack of commercial success, for fretting of that kind frankly, is for the birds and bands who make music with cash as their primary motivation. Lifestyle is perhaps the Silkworm album where that lack of commercial success is so acutely inexplicable, with “Slave Wages” and “Treat the New Guy Right”, two of the songs most central to the enigma. The two songs are very different, but they share an over-powering ear-burrowing quality that typifies the best pop music. And in that regard, if there is one particular chorus in which a first-time listener of Lifestyle is likely to find herself singing or rather shouting as the needle hits the run-off groove, it is more than likely to be that of “Treat the New Guy Right”.
Lifestyle began with an Andy Cohen song, “Contempt”, which was then followed by Tim Midyett’s “Slave Wages”. Now “Treat the New Guy Right” takes us back to Andy. Sometimes when two distinctive songwriters trade album tracks like this, it can feel to the listener like a competition. Take, for example, almost any Beatles album where Lennon and McCartney bat songwriting duties back and forth. The clear impression is that each is trying to outdo the other. At other times swapping songwriters track by track can feel like all-out war. Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories is a great album. But the fairly rigid alternation between Mould and Hart compositions with their attendant differences quickly starts to feel like a process of aggression,; each track spurred into existence by the antagonism of its predecessor. By contrast, there is no sense of authorial rivalry within Lifestyle or the Silkworm discography in general, for that matter. Andy and Tim’s songs complement rather than contend with one another. Silkworm albums have a knack for weaving their two entirely individual sets of songs together to form a satisfying gestalt.
One reason for this homogeneity, even as Tim and Andy swap songs, and tone and subject matter change accordingly, is that every song seems to have been given full attention with none neglected or privileged over another in terms of arrangements and writing. It seems obvious that this should be the case if a band is trying to make a good record, but in reality, the common good is occasionally forgotten. Sometimes songs are not realized to their full potential, albums may be front-loaded with the strongest material, or hours may be poured into the ‘hit’ or particularly favored tracks to the detriment of others and the album as a whole. It can even be the case that an individual’s less than positive feelings towards his band mate’s song can end up on tape. The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” is a famous example where the other Beatles provide their own kind of commentary on the originality of McCartney’s melody. If it sounds like they’re laughing and singing “Frère Jacques” instead of “Paperback Writer” on the backing vocal, then it’s because they are. Again, there is no sense of sabotage or favoritism on Lifestyle. Every song is given its due.
The experience of the band is also a factor in creating a sense of unity between the songs. By the time of Lifestyle, these three skilled musicians had played together for so long that the interplay and understanding within the ensemble had become finely tuned. This kind of refined chemistry and intuition brought nuance to their music. More than just the band’s ‘sound’, these subtleties and shadings run throughout Lifestyle from front to back, a thread which draws disparate songs together, encoding them with a kind of common DNA. The result is that despite obvious differences of form and content, the acoustic melancholy of Andy Cohen’s “Roots” feels like a relative to the booming stomp of Tim Midyett’s “Yr Web”, as if the two songs were different chapters of the same novella.
Of course, clever track sequencing fosters a sense of continuity too. As noted in last week’s blog “Slave Wages”, the first three tracks on Lifestyle form a kind of triptych wherein each track accelerates into the next. The album opens at mid-pace with “Contempt” and then switches up gears through “Slave Wages” before hurtling into “Treat the New Guy Right”, a tale of a wild love affair, a song with the rev-o-meter in the red from the start.
If “Slave Wages” was a series of deft twists and turns, each more compelling than the last, then by contrast, “Treat the New Guy Right” is a charging bully of a song. Built around a descending “ooga-chucka ooga-chucka” bass line, it bolts off the line and steamrolls the listener. Lyrically the song is as direct as its music. After a short intro — the baseline and Michael Dahlqvist’s drums locked together and punctuated by chimes from Andy’s guitar — we are immediately in medias res. “He came into town that night / Found himself in a bright light / That followed him around / As he searched for a wife.” If “Contempt” was an Andy Cohen re-imagining of a classic movie, then “Treat the New Guy Right” is an original 20th century Cohen production. It is a classic movie set-up. The lone stranger appears in town. There’s a needle-scratch from the jukebox as the locals stop to stare at the interloper in their midst.
A strange thing happens on those third and fourth lines (“That followed him around / As he searched for a wife”). A female voice joins in. It wouldn’t be correct to call it a backing vocal because it’s as prominent as Andy’s lead, and significantly there isn’t anything secondary about it. It pops in and out of the track, joining on some lines and not others, and completely transforms, not just the aesthetic of the track, but its meaning. It happens to be the voice of Heather Whinna, Lifestyle‘s producer. The next lines, leading into the chorus: “Alone like a wandering Jew / She asked, “Who will protect me from you?” / It was only then they were playing the fools.” And while Andy himself played the female part in “Contempt”, here he has help from Heather, who joins and gives voice to that middle line “Who will protect me from you?”. It’s a brilliant conceit. This is a movie, after all, so a full cast is required.
Up to this point, the song has been intriguing, the dramatic lyrics about a dangerous stranger and the woman who might be falling for him, that baseline, the insistence of the drums, and Heather’s vocals, which brighten everything. A twinkling line from Brett Grossman’s piano signals a change, the start of the chorus, a movement that is the sonic equivalent of falling headfirst off a cliff. Michael’s bass drum suddenly pounds its way to the front, and Tim’s bass line dances. It’s an enormous release of tension. What was surging in the verse suddenly becomes celebratory in the chorus, which is as direct and completely enigmatic as anything in rock.
Four lines long, it begins: “When you run into the night / AIN’T YOU EVER BEEN ALONE IN YOUR LIFE?” The first line is Heather and Andy. The second line (the capitalization is mine) is everyone, Heather, Andy, the rest of the band, and the rest of the world it seems, such is the effect of all these voices singing at full capacity. Andy has a skill for composing lyrics drenched in dark humor, as we’ll see elsewhere in this series. The characters he creates are often archly cynical. Here though, the appeal is earnest. It is not just a cry for sympathy, as in pity or commiseration. It is greater than that. It is an exhortation of solidarity. Everyone sings the line because loneliness unites us all. And the song in its melody, its meter, and its rabble-rousing choral arrangement demands that the listener joins in and becomes one of the choir. In doing so, “Treat the New Guy Right” doesn’t just convey its subject, the notion of solidarity, but inspires it and enacts it, uniting the voices on the record with those of its audience. It is a perfect combination of content and form. It is also an enormous hook.
What could follow it? The chorus’s final two lines: “Motorhead is coming for you / You gotta treat the new guy right.” This series aims to explore the album, to celebrate everything about Lifestyle, not to try and explain lyrics. Still, if it were, this would be the point where we would move skip onwards to the next verse and hope no-one noticed that anything had been omitted. For who or what is a Motorhead? Is it some local gearhead lunk chasing our hero through town? That would seem possible, but it’s perhaps more fun to imagine that Lemmy is on the rampage and, for some largely unaccountable reason, has you in his sights. The abstruse terminology is another reminder that Andy is a singular songwriter regarding his subject matter and references and that if it were predictable and straightforward, it wouldn’t be Silkworm.
The second and final verse expands on the fervent love affair, which was sparked in the first. Our heroes skip town and jump on a plane: “Nothing could happen so fast / Like in the old days / When the atom got smashed / On the flight to Reno / There’s no living in the past / Sheets are red because the bed is on fire / When the plane touched down / It blew a tire / That was just the start of a wild weekend.” Casual and skilled pathetic fallacy aside, what’s interesting is that Heather joins on the first three lines and the last. Somehow this topping and tailing, her framing of the verse, perhaps combined with the “Ain’t you ever been alone in your life?” line in the chorus, brings clarity or at least suggests a reason why it is that Heather’s vocal adds so much to the song. Her voice is very pretty, but, as noted above, her contribution feels like something beyond aesthetics. It doesn’t just add polish or brightness to the track. The tone in her voice helps spark everything to life.
Greil Marcus noted the difference between Elvis Costello’s version of his song “All This Useless Beauty” and the cover of the song by Lush. Elvis was always a classicist, a studious record lover, and this is reflected in his performance:
“Costello sings the song as a tragedy: a beautiful tragedy. The irony burns off as he goes on: the words, taken slowly, carefully, as if something in them, or him, might break, seem to shake in his throat on the choruses.” (Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky, 1999, pg. 18)
With his care and attention and the inflections of all the voices of rock and roll’s history in his, Elvis’ version of the song belongs on a gallery wall. By contrast, as Marcus points out, Lush were a far younger band, led by two women, and their version of the same song is strikingly different.
“There’s no pose, no preening; what they do with the song makes Costello seem like an actor. Like that moment in Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” when the female singer comes in, earnestly telling her story in a manner so naturalistic it’s an effort to remind yourself that she’s singing, what Lush create with “All This Useless Beauty” is the shock of realism.” (Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky, 1999, pg. 19)
With Heather’s vocals added to the mix, tonally, “Treat the New Guy Right” is like having both versions of “All This Useless Beauty” playing simultaneously. Andy is not a classicist like Elvis. It’s hard to imagine Andy unironically belting out “She” for the soundtrack to a rom-com unless it was set perhaps during the Battle of Alesia, or the Siege of Leningrad, or some other suitably Andy-ish scenario. However, the contrast is the same as described by Marcus. On “Treat the New Guy Right” Andy is rocking out, and what Heather brings is that “shock of realism”. The naturalism of her delivery jolts the song, enhancing the vibrancy in both the lyrics and the playing. It is also entirely suitable that a song with a genuine chorus featuring many voices and with solidarity as its main subject should also have multiple, distinctive tones in its verses.
Another ecstatic double chorus, a short guitar break, some sparkling chords from Brett Grossman, and done. In and out in just over two and a half unforgettable minutes. We started this post by commenting on the bizarre lack of commercial success enjoyed by Lifestyle. One listen to “Treat the New Guy Right” underscores how pointless it is to try and unravel that mystery. Mass popularity is surely nice. No-one deserves gold swimming pools and cars filled with champagne more than the creators of this classic song. But a platinum disc is no indicator of the value of something to our culture. It represents a number in a ledger or a point on a sales graph, and nothing more. The fact is that the legacy of a song like “Treat the New Guy Right” is richer than all that noise, and much more than can be summed up adequately here. A song that lifts the listener’s spirit and provokes spontaneous singing like “Treat the New Guy Right” will always have its day and will outlast all of us.
As noted in previous entries in this series, the first three tracks of Lifestyle form a breathless triptych. The opening track “Contempt” glides in at mid-pace, the tempo of the track matching its sun-lounger sighs of ennui. The second track “Slave Wages” grabs the baton and sprints away, the quickening of its stride matching its comic-tinged themes of fretfulness and the stress of a hand to mouth existence. Finally, the third track “Treat the New Guy Right” bundles the listener into its back seat and screeches off down the road, its hi-octane revs entirely appropriate to its portrayal of a fiery love affair.
“Plain” represents a break in the sequence. It is the first song to slow the pace of Lifestyle. In this respect it is important for at least two reasons. Firstly, it begins the process of opening the full vista of the album to the listener. After the thrills of “Slave Wages” and “Treat the New Guy Right”, for a first time listener it would be easy to get carried away and anticipate another short, hard rockin’ pop song, and there are several more of those on the album. However, by choosing not to sequence another similar track straightaway, but instead stepping in with an abruptly slower song of uneven tempo, Lifestyle forces the listener to pause and refocus her attention. This is not going to be simply a quick sprint of an album. The first three tracks have already let the listener know that lyrically the songs of Lifestyle may encompass any subject, and “Plain” confirms that musically we also have a full journey in store.
Secondly, where, as noted, “Contempt”, “Slave Wages”, and “Treat the New Guy Right” form their own opening triptych, “Plain” marks the beginning of a second trilogy of related tracks. As we shall see in the coming weeks, “Plain” and the two tracks which follow it, “Roots” and “Yr Web”, while musically very different, share common themes of nostalgia, all looking warmly backwards in one way or another. “Plain” begins by locating itself very clearly at home and in the past.
A bass drum like a mountain pushed off the side of another mountain and striking a dynamite factory below it, then sheets of crunching bass guitar. The riff which will reappear throughout the song is a good example of Tim Midyett’s creative approach to the instrument. Listeners used to the common relegation of the bass in rock music to the nothing more than a low hum sitting back in the mix might mistake it for a lead guitar. For all the spontaneity in their music, there is nothing idle in the conception of Silkworm’s work. A guitar solo is never short of intense invention, a drum track never less than a full exhaustion of adrenalin, and a bass line never just something that fills the space between the two. In “Plain” Tim’s bass is fiercely melodic and rhythmic, a juddering twist of metal that alternately drives the song forward and then grabs it by the neck and jerks it back.
The first line then, and that backwards glance: “Missoula, Montana, 1984 / The year of big government taking over / The river gleams with sudden light / New wave bliss under patchy fog tonight.” Our narrator sets the scene for Lifestyle‘s most conventional love song. “Contempt” painted a scene of a doomed marriage and “Treat the New Guy Right” projected a movie about a love affair where the “bed’s on fire”, but “Plain” is a more obvious love letter to a partner. The narrator looks back with his addressee to their younger selves in a beautiful description of tender adoration: “Strands of your hair fell / Opened your eyes / The start of a spell / The perpetual movement / Gleam in your eye / Cut of your hair / Length of your stride.” Elegant phrasing such as this has to be quoted in full.
As usual though — and we have said this in every entry in this series — being Silkworm, as it arrives at its chorus “Plain” eschews the usual trite “I love you / Like flowers in bloom / In the month of June” sentiments of a traditional love song. It ditches the platitudes of most rock music for something much more sophisticated and frankly more intelligent. Throughout the verse bass and guitar have been slinkily prowling forward, thoroughly intertwined but, as the chorus approaches, everything stops and drops out. Only Michael’s drums and a few punctuating chords remain. That unusual chorus: “You’re plain so plain / Just look the other way / Do you want to stay with me?”
Out of context it seems like an inappropriate expression for a love song. He says he loves her and then tells her she’s plain, as in ordinary? It is not a reading that makes sense in light of the verse which precedes, full as that is of love-drunk affection. The song turns on the meaning of its title. In the context of the verses before and after, rather than “ordinary” or “unimpressive”, it seems more reasonable that the narrator is saying that the object of his love is plain as in “unembellished” or “unpretentious”. To him she is perfect exactly as she is. Elsewhere in this series we have commented on the poetic qualities of Silkworm’s lyrics, and this is another example where Tim, the song’s author, comes up with an idea which drags the usual conventions of the love song into a new or odd direction. It is not the rapid, twisting wordplay of “Slave Wages” or “Dead Air”, which we’ll see later in this series, and there have been songs by other artists which talk about seeing the ‘real’ you/me, but what he has done, ironically in a track called “Plain”, is to add a layer of complexity to a song which could have been just an engaging but largely conventional love song. The expression, which might at first seem so unusual or, as noted, inappropriate, gives the listener pause. The song itself promotes that response with the instrumental drop-out noted above.
“Plain” will return to themes of clarity and devotion in its final verse, but before that the middle eight descends like a storm, in keeping with the Missoula meteorological conditions described in the lyrics. The climax of this is the biggest guitar solo of the album so far. Compared to some of the heads-down rock elsewhere in Lifestyle, “Plain” seems to stop and start. It’s a feeling encouraged by the bass line and the pauses within the lines of the chorus. The impression is of a piece of paper being folded over and over again. It’s not a song which suggests an obvious solo. Andy Cohen though is one of the most singularly inventive guitarists in rock, a musician who can find a new take on a melody or theme with baffling ease, a demonstration of which we’ll come to later in the album. He spatters “Plain” with streams of sparks, playing against Tim’s bassline. It’s the exact peak which the song needs and, as with the best solos, it completely lacks obviousness and yet after hearing it just once it is impossible to imagine anything else in its place.
The final verse completes the unsentimental yet heart-melting notions of its predecessors: “But you’re stuck with me / Stuck with this / It will never relent / Never miss/ I’m part of your kiss / I’m inside you now / The coarse and the rough are elided somehow.” The narrator points to himself. “Stuck with this” could refer to all-consuming love or instead be a gesture of self-deprecation. “Plain” which could have been a simple love song turns out to be, yes, a passionate love song but also a song about honesty, the foundation of any genuine love. Again, “The coarse and the rough are elided somehow” is suggestive of problems being smoothed, but also of any embellishment being wiped away.
The introduction to this series suggested that one of the wonders of Silkworm’s music is that it strives for beauty, not sublimity. It captures the multiplicity. It gives shape to the transitory. It grabs handfuls of life and presents them to the listener in an original and fascinating voice.The illusion of the metaphysical with its claims to infinity and permanence is rejected. “Plain” is a love song with a strong dose of realism. A pun is not intended, but it presents a plain, unadorned love. The track avoids mawkishness without abdicating its responsibility as a love song to move the listener. Grandstanding and hyperbole and windswept mountain tops are rejected for the hackneyed tropes they are. Instead “Plain” closes by offering a restatement of its chorus, “We’re plain so plain / Just look the other way”, and by asking with open-shuttered simplicity, “Do you want to stay with me?”
After the restless escapades of Lifestyle‘s opening trio of songs and their exotic thrills, dank apartments, and Motorhead-related hijinks, with the next track “Plain” we found ourselves back home, Silkworm’s home that is, in Missoula, Montana. The narrator of Tim Midyett’s beautiful love song gazed fondly back to the place and time where he first laid eyes on the object of his affection and his world changed. Uncharacteristically Lifestyle‘s fifth track stays put, and once again the former Hellgate Trading Post, the Garden City, Missoula is our setting, this time for the Andy Cohen penned “Roots”, which is the subject of this week’s blog entry. And whereas in “Plain” Missoula’s role was arguably that of a backdrop to the main subject, namely the earliest bloom of love, in “Roots” it takes center stage as Lifestyle, an album with themes of travel and movement, turns its attention to the problematic notion of home and all that can mean.
It’s a song that might be said to confound expectations in a number of ways. However, as Lifestyle has progressed we have increasingly seen that the notion of having any expectations of Silkworm is problematic. Over and over just when the listener thinks they have got things pinned, lyrics or music swerve and introduce something new. This holds true for the entire Silkworm discography, namely that it is very difficult to make generalizations with any confidence. For now though let’s concoct some so-called expectations and use them as heuristic devices, a way to explore the heartfelt ode to home that is “Roots”.
False ‘Worm Expectation No.1: ‘The Silkworm sound is all about the rock.’
It is true that when these three musicians drop the hammer, the result of their collective chemistry is rock heaven, but “Roots” is an acoustic track, and it is not Lifestyle‘s last. Accompanied by bass player Tim, Andy picks out a typically rich melody, breaking into warm chords in the chorus. The opening melody, which is revisited throughout the song, is elegiac without being sorrowful. It is the perfect fit for the subject of the lyrics. The combination of this and the sparse acoustic arrangement evoke something specifically American. It speaks of winding rivers and big skies and snow-capped mountains. If this seems like a stretch, it’s no more of a stretch than the way in which the finger-picking of Nick Drake undeniably evokes images that are English. Even without the lyrics, sung in that distinctive English public school accent, Drake’s playing and music suggest patchwork fields, the scuttle of creatures through hedgerows, riverbanks, and dragonflies. The trans-Atlantic reverse is true of the playing on “Roots”.
It should really be no surprise though that Silkworm are able to explore these kinds of themes so effectively. There is plenty of harshness and noise in their back catalogue, but there are also numerous moments which are similar in tone and mood to “Roots”. There is even one record of all-acoustic covers, the You Are Dignified EP, on which they pull off the remarkable feat of unplugging Shellac’s magnificent unacoustic “Prayer to God” and do so in a thoroughly convincing fashion.
False ‘Worm Expectation No.2: ‘Andy’s songs are all about the Second World War.’
Not that that wouldn’t be especially cool though. In the extras to Seth Pomeroy’s superb Silkworm documentary Couldn’t You Wait? Matt Kadane (Bedhead, the New Year, Overseas, and keyboards in Silkworm post Lifestyle) jokes that all of Andy’s songs fall into one of three categories: Wars, ancient history, and being a Jew. It is certainly an impression encouraged by tracks such as “There Is a Party in Warsaw Tonight”, a song about the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazi General Alfred Jodl, as Andy himself explains in Couldn’t You Wait?.
As well as being thoroughly memorable in its own right, as the lead-off track on their important third album, their last as a quartet, “There Is a Party in Warsaw Tonight” holds a prominent place in the Silkworm discography, and this, combined with the power of the song, perhaps overly influences how a casual listener might characterize Andy’s songbook. Actually scratch that: There aren’t any ‘casual’ Silkworm listeners. Let’s say a ‘mischievous’ listener then. Of course, while the obscurantism of Andy’s lyrics — the songs about wars, submarines, pipelines, old movies, and other esoterica — is one of the greatest things about Silkworm, it is not the sum total of his subject matter. He is also capable of writing songs that are acutely direct while still maintaining his own very unique idiolect. This is the case with “Roots”.
The opening four lines of the first verse: “Oh to stand on the Higgins Bridge / As the lights go down / Just watching the river flow / On our last night in town.” It’s another brilliant first line. Consider some of the other classic openers on a few of the tracks we’ve covered so far in our series, from the cryptic “Do you like my thighs and my feet?” and “Beatniks are hapless with conga drums” to the very specific “Missoula, Montana, 1984.” Silkworm do not indulge in waffle. Every second is made to count. Andy and Tim’s opening lines often have a “Man walks in a bar…” feel to them, a nudge and a wink to the audience to check this one out, a confident “Have you heard the one about…”, every one a riveting set-up for the tale that follows. “Roots” is no different. A specific reference such as the Higgins Bridge instantly draws intrigue, as once again, as in “Plain”, we find ourselves in Missoula, this time looking down at the Clark Fork River.
The first verse encapsulates the quandary in which the narrator finds himself. He presents a romantic image of the town at twilight with the river beneath his feet, and it is not merely a sentimental pose. The very first exclamatory “Oh” reveals his feelings for the place; he longs to be there in Missoula. And yet the final line reveals the contrary, something else at play, a circumstance or force drawing him away from his home. This vacillation is repeated throughout the song and it is what makes “Roots” so memorable. Each of its three verses — no chorus — turn one direction then the other.
The final lines of the first verse begin to explain the dilemma: “If you’re ever gonna get away / You better learn to run / But if the lessons are coming slow / Don’t be upset / That just means you’re home.” Home is somewhere you have to escape from, flee if you literally and figuratively want to broaden your horizons. When you’re home, the world can seem very small. Nothing much happens, and those lessons come slow. Again though there is ambivalence, here captured in the final two lines, for while home in its narrowness and inertia may be a source of deep frustration it is also a near-universal salve. Smallness and familiarity can be suffocating, but they can also be reassuring and sheltering.
The second verse restates the narrator’s desperation to leave, and there is no room for negotiation. In its entirety: “If I leave work early one day on the 31st floor / You can stand aside or call the cops / As I break for the door / You can look for me at Front and Main / But I’m not there, I’m gone / None of us is there anymore / Will the last one remember / To turn the lights off?” The verse shifts the emphasis of the song. The first verse used the second person (“You better learn to run”), but up to this point, “Roots” seems like an outpouring of one man’s heartache. Now though we see that everyone he knows shares the same feelings. To leave home is one of the most important decisions anyone can make. It is rarely an easy move. Somehow though he and all of his friends have reached the same momentous conclusion, that they must go. The verse reminds us of the absence a person creates when they leave (“You can look for me at Front and Main / But I’m not there, I’m gone”), and the image of all the emptiness left behind is especially poignant (“Will the last one remember / To turn the lights off?”).
Already the song is thick with familiar and common themes. Anyone who grows up in a small town or city and longs to leave knows exactly what the narrator speaks. There may be eighteen desperate years of pining to run and get out and away, but it is only followed by a lifetime of affectionate backward glances. For some people “home” can be a roving signifier, but for others, there is only ever one home. In the final verse our narrator recognizes this homeward yearning in a kindred spirit: “There’s a Puerto Rican in this bar / She’s thinking about San Juan / If I could, I’d wave a wand / And send her home”. A feeling of solidarity runs through all of Silkworm’s work, of openness, warmth, of the connectedness of the world. Sometimes the explicit expression of this is undercut with humor.
For example, the song “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” from the album Developer follows its title with the line “Except you, my friend, on a good night”, and well it would be remiss not to mention the brilliant line “And ‘I love you’ means ‘I hope you don’t survive the night'” which forms the chorus of “I Hope U (Don’t Survive)” from the album Italian Platinum. However, in “Roots” there is no irony. There are no wisecracks. Home wields an overwhelming and unassailable power, and faced with this bone-deep longing the best our narrator can do is to admit “But first you know I’d send myself / Back where the river flows.”
With the feeling and directness of this admission “Roots” arguably delivers one of Lifestyle‘s most affecting moments. It is also a song that demonstrates the range of Andy’s writing. He is known for his jokes and songs about all manner of weird stuff, but here he taps a universally relatable theme in simple unmediated language without recourse to metaphor or causticity. Lyrically and musically it damns both of our affectionately flip False ‘Worm Expectations and shows again that with Silkworm all presumptions must be left at the door.
6. “Yr Web”
“Yr Web” is track six on Lifestyle and for those lucky enough to be listening to a vinyl copy of Silkworm’s classic seventh album it is the closing track of side A. While the previous song, the wistful, acoustic, Andy Cohen penned “Roots” eased the album to its quietest point so far, marking a moment of stillness and poignancy, Tim Midyett’s “Yr Web” bounces into our midst like a Labrador pepped up on sherbet and double-glazed doughnuts, ending Lifestyle‘s opening chapter with a brilliant life-affirming ebullience.
We suggested in previous entries that Lifestyle‘s fourth, fifth, and sixth tracks — “Plain”, “Roots”, and “Yr Web” — form a kind of mini-trilogy centering on themes of nostalgia with all three songs looking backward in one sense or another. “Roots” takes its place in the triptych with lyrics that send glad tidings to an old flame. Although it expresses feelings of regret, the song is not an apology. And it is certainly not any kind of come-on. Rather it’s an open-hearted acknowledgment of past love, the good and the bad, a magnanimous tip of the hat from one human being to another. In other words, it’s very Silkworm.
If a video were to be made to accompany “Yr Web” to capture the spirit of the music, it would feature footage of slam dunks, home runs, acrobats landing impossible somersaults, cliff-divers, fireworks, and so on, and so on. From the beginning, the track has a feeling of giddy positivity. Chiming riffs from Tim (bass) and Andy (guitar) immediately and — for a song called “Yr Web” — appropriately begin to encircle the listener. As the song progresses these will form a raucous vortex at the center of which will sit Tim’s vocals. The track really begins though about 18 seconds in when Michael Dahlquist’s drums enter the mix.
There are often typical ways in which we consider the role of drums in rock music. Perhaps they ‘anchor’ the track and keep things steady while the guitarist goes to town and expresses his free-jazz tendencies. Perhaps the reverse, in that by managing the tempo of the track they add drama and urge the rest of the band onwards. When Michael’s drums come in on “Yr Web” something much more remarkable happens. The whole track lifts and doesn’t stop rising for its full three-minute 20-odd duration. We have mentioned the power of Michael’s drumming numerous times in the series so far, and we’ll do so again here. It sounds like a giant is on-stage using two baseball bats as sticks. It is an enormous, exciting sound. Maybe it is the physical aspect of great rock drumming, but there is something thrilling about it that brings a smile to the face possibly even more so than a great guitar solo.
While the thunder Michael could bring was otherworldly, it would be entirely wrong to think of him as just a ‘basher’. He was also a musician with technique, which jumped notches with each Silkworm album. Listen from the early L’ajre tracks successively through to the final Chokes! EP and hear a drummer getting better and better as the years went on. Indeed if you want to hear what is possibly the Michael Dahlquist drum track par excellence, check out “Bar Ice”, the opening song on Chokes!. It actually seems irresponsible to recommend it so blithely. Before dropping the needle on that one, perhaps put on a fireproof suit, a crash helmet, or hide behind a steel-lined wall because the sound is as big and explosive as rock drumming gets. Caveat auditor.
However, as well as being four minutes of rock ecstasy, “Bar Ice” is a demonstration of Michael’s impeccable instincts, something which we’ve also already discussed in this series. Whether it’s the way he drives the band into the chorus of “Slave Wages”, rapidly filling and hitting hard on the first line, or the way he controls the revs on “Treat the New Guy Right”, grabbing the song by its collar and pulling it back at the end of each line in the chorus — does he or does he not linger over these fills for the perfect amount of time? — before once again accelerating forward. Michael knew exactly what was needed to best serve Andy and Tim’s songs.
If there is one thing that separates great rock drummers from the rest though, it is personality. It is obvious, but it is something that is not often made explicit. It is a quality we certainly prize in other musicians, namely that their playing somehow contains a sense of their character, that they put something uniquely individual to themselves into their music. It is something we particularly look for in singers. For example, Mariah Carey may hit more notes than Lou Reed, but Lou Reed will always be a better singer than Mariah. His voice conveys identity and attitude. Encoded in it are very specific ideas of who he was, or a version of who he was, whereas Mariah, for all her impressive sonic acrobatics, will always remain opaque.
It is the same with drummers. Think of some of the very best rock drummers, John Bonham, Todd Trainer, or Janet Weiss, for example. In all cases, as well as technique and ferocious power, the common quality is that when they play, there is a sense of who they are in that playing. As noted, it may be a version of themselves or a persona they put on when they sit at their kit or neither even, but for the listener, it doesn’t particularly matter. We piece together the ticks and tropes of their playing and identify a human being in the midst of the music.
The feeling that you are connecting with others is one of the greatest things about listening to music, and the best musicians are those that enable this through the singularity of their playing. It is this quality that elevates Michael into elite company, the realm occupied by those named above. Every strike he makes on every song on every Silkworm record explodes with enthusiasm. Every moment is filled with the maximal concentration of energy. This is not related to power. Even Michael’s quieter moments teem with dizzy jouissance. There is a sense that here is someone who at that exact moment would rather be nowhere else in the world than playing this music. Live footage tends to support this. It shows someone sweaty, shirtless, gloved, leaning into his kit with arms arcing up above his head. For any music lover, it is a wonderful sight. However, putting the visual aside, it is all there on record, this wholeheartedness, this zeal, this vivacity. It is what makes him one of rock’s greatest drummers.
“Yr Web” is an example of this verve. As said above, Michael enters the song big, and when he gets to the chorus, it is like oxygen being blown into a fire. The whole track expands and there is an explosion of hi-hat. As central as Michael is to what makes “Yr Web” so brilliant, it is however not a one-man show, for he is more than ably supported by Andy and Tim who almost seem to swap roles, Andy’s guitar providing a bed while Tim’s bass careens upwards and away before circling back down again, the two combining to create a weird, beautiful, whooping maelstrom of sound. Finally, the exuberance of the music is matched by the elegant delight of Tim’s words, for “Yr Web” contains possibly one of his sweetest lines.
The opening verse and chorus run into one another without break. The final two lines of the verse and that magnificent chorus: “I loved you then and now I / Still send my love to you I was / Happy to be wrapped up / Pleased beyond dreams to be / Tangled in your web”. The sentiment is heartwarming, but it is that penultimate line which grabs the ear. It is so perfect that it’s difficult to believe that it’s an original, that it hasn’t existed forever. What makes it so satisfying? Is it the assonance of “pleased”, “beeyond”, and “dreams”? Is it just the tenderness of the affection it somehow carries? The line manages to combine the fluidity we saw in Tim’s lyrics to “Slave Wages” and the simple lucidity he created in “Plain”.
The central image of the chorus may be of webs, but there is no sense of threat or danger, or of hunter and prey. On the contrary, as the narrator says, he is very happy to have lost himself in his ex-partner’s love. The last lines of the final verse reaffirm this warmth, but also speak to something very typically Silkworm. The lines are repetition and modification on the first verse: “I loved you then and now I / Still send my love to you / Well why not.” The “Well why not” is not a shrug of indifference. It is more a case of “Well why shouldn’t I?” There is a ‘Hail fellow well met!’ outlook running through all of Silkworm’s work, a spirit of openness and congeniality, a notion of turning to greet the world instead of turning away.
Even the more darkly themed songs betray a passion for experience and a desire for what life will bring. This is what we get in these final lines. We might see a message of love to an old flame and the putting aside of bygones (“Well why not?”) as not just a specific and magnanimous gesture, but as excellent instruction on the most productive way to approach everything and everyone. In this, “Yr Web” speaks to the same emotional intelligence as “Plain”, which is adult, realistic, and compassionate.
Tim’s final line is a repeat of the chorus, “I was happy to be wrapped up / Pleased beyond dreams…” and the song ends on a long instrumental passage, floating away on a thunderous pillow of noise. It is an appropriate finale to the first half of an album so shot-through with sunlight and dappled with love and joy.
7. “That’s Entertainment”
Lifestyle began with the song “Contempt”, a song of easy beauty from Andy Cohen or, given the lyrics of the track, should that be the easy beauty of Andy/Brigitte Cohen? The opening of the second half of Lifestyle is a mirror of the first in some senses. “That’s Entertainment”, the subject of this week’s blog entry, is another languid classic from Andy. However, if “Contempt” was a poignant, smoldering take on a broken relationship, then “That’s Entertainment” is an elegant firestorm. The two tracks are similarly paced but strike wildly different tones.
“That’s Entertainment” shares its name with the famous track by the Jam from their 1980 album Sound Affects. Although bizarrely never given a domestic single release in the UK, it remains one of Paul Weller’s best-known songs. The Jam’s track is a string of images of the mundane, the mildly threatening, and every day of British life. In terms of subject matter, the two songs are as far apart as Woking and Missoula. What they do share is an ironic use of their title phrase, albeit to different ends. Weller’s song is brilliant, at this point as deeply woven into the culture of modern England as the Beatles, Morecambe and Wise, and 1966, and to reduce it to one emotional note would be ridiculous. However, for the purpose of contrast, broadly speaking, when the chorus pays off the measured detail which Weller accumulates in the verses, the effect is of pathos, as the end of the third verse and the subsequent chorus demonstrate: “Watching the news and not eating your tea / A freezing cold flat and damp on the walls / I say that’s entertainment / That’s entertainment.”
In this series, we saw an American apartment of similar despair and disrepair in “Slave Wages”. In Silkworm’s hands though it became the setting for a comic scene of unvaccinated cats and epically foul carpets. Silkworm can be deadly serious and their songs tear at the heartstrings but, as pointed out in our “Slave Wages” entry, they are certainly not miserabilists. “Slave Wages” was written by Tim and “That’s Entertainment” is an Andy song, but here we see their shared sensibility. With eloquence and expert raconteurism Tim transformed what could have been quite a sorry subject, and in “That’s Entertainment” Andy gives the ironic use of the title an extra twist which nudges pathos to the edge of the frame in favor of dark humor.
Before we even get to any lyrics though “That’s Entertainment” presents the listener with a gift from the rock gods, namely an Andy Cohen guitar solo, for our song opens with almost exactly one minute of Andy at his shredding finest. Describing a guitar solo on the printed page, beyond “awesome” or “not awesome”, is up there with wearing baseball caps, drinking decaf, and being really ‘into’ your hair in the league of entirely pointless human endeavors, so we shall not do that. Let’s just say that Andy is a miraculous guitarist. He easily fulfills the requisite criteria for guitar hero status. Not only can he play ‘a lot of guitar’, but he’s completely distinctive. He navigates paths in his playing that only he can see. His solos are complex and abstract, and are therefore endlessly fascinating, entertaining, and, yes, awesome to revisit. He sways and bobs and pitchpoles in ways that would make Neil Young proud. Comparing one unique player to another is silly though. As Gerard Cosloy points out in Couldn’t You Wait? Seth Pomeroy’s exceptional Silkworm documentary, which we’ve now referenced for the one-hundredth time and we’re not done yet, “It’s almost a disservice in a lot of ways to compare him to a lot of the great rock players because it’s really sort of transcendent some of the crap he comes up with.”
Part of what lends Andy’s playing this near numinous quality is his ability to stray so far from the original melody that as a listener it can be difficult to remember or backtrack and re-imagine how he got there. The only option is to cast these thoughts aside and follow him, or rather try to follow him because more often than not he will head the direction least anticipated, and whenever a dead-end has apparently been met, he somehow magics up an escape route, some unseen trapdoor, through which to continue his sprawling journey. In Couldn’t You Wait? Steve Albini puts it succinctly: “I was always impressed that he could start in the song and then go completely outside the song and wander off into this sort of self-sustaining continuum, and then somehow or other get back into the song when it was time to play the song again. It always seemed a mystery to me.”
We said in the introduction to this series that Lifestyle contains a sense of contingency, that the album feels dramatically alive, that there is a feeling of newness with each play. Andy’s solos in “That’s Entertainment” speak directly to this. They lack the obvious clichés to signpost where he’s going, and so, as noted, the only thing we can do is be present with him as he negotiates his private map through the song. To transport a listener like this is to perform a kind of thaumaturgy. It is an impenetrable mixture of art and science, and it is a thrill.
“That’s Entertainment” is clearly one of Andy’s highlights on Lifestyle. After treating us to a sublime instrumental introduction he then turns in one of his most darkly funny lyrics. The first of the song’s two verses: “The affair was good / But it wasn’t worth the money / Don’t you cry / I earn a lot now / And you see what you could be / If you were only willing to work as hard as me.” On paper, the lines seem snide and cold, but that’s the point. The performance is of course entirely straight-faced, but in context, the excessive snark of the “I earn a lot now” punchline can only provoke a grin. Humour is one of the most under-rated qualities in rock music. Whether it’s Shellac, the Smiths, or Steely Dan, we’re drawn to bands who create their own unique world in their songs, some special dimension with an exclusive vernacular and its own particular in-jokes. It is something which Silkworm do to perfection.
The narrator of “That’s Entertainment” appears to fancy himself as some kind of Lothario. He certainly seems happy to lay waste to his unfortunate ex. Andy’s predilection for outré, leering characters is a feature of the Silkworm discography. For example, one of his most memorable lyrics — literally memorable in that, hear it once and you won’t forget it! — is the classic opening to the final verse of “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” from the Developer album: “Down on Kettner Boulevard / I called on my friend Gerard / Said “Gerard, gimme 200 bucks / It’s been weeks since I had a good… FUCK!” It’s a different kind of humor to “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, but just as Morrissey evokes his idiosyncratic world, so do Silkworm, one with its own language, secret handshakes, dramatis personae, and outlook.
The chorus comes in: “That’s entertainment / That’s entertainment / Never in our lives have we been so entertained.” As noted, following the scathing putdown of the verse, the refrain of the title becomes ironic; most people would not consider the end of an affair to be a leisure activity. Again though where Weller mined sadness from the gap between his use of the line and its explicit meaning, Andy ramps up the sarcasm and finds a kind of black humor: “Never in our lives have we been so entertained.” Finally, the chorus concludes with another brilliant bit of mischief, as our narrator takes the opportunity to kid the listener with a half-rhyme too good to pass up: “And I know you’re for me / You’re for me / You’re foreign.” Foreign as in alien, distant, different? Foreign as in actually foreign, like Dutch? What the what, Andy?
The second and final verse continues our rake’s theme: “It’s Christmastime / We’re feeling fine / Everyone’s drinking and on the flirt.” Given the preceding verse, this feels like the scene from an office party, with booze flowing, asses being photocopied, and cleavage being peered down. One of Andy’s great skills as a lyricist is to leave room for and encourage all manner of mad extrapolations. The final lines are typically ambiguous: “But I’ll say whatever it takes / To get a promise you won’t make it hurt.” Could it be that our narrator has found his heart? Perhaps the break-up was more painful than he let on and now here he is pleading for compassion from his latest conquest before things have even got started. However, given the context and the particular brand of carnal etiquette displayed by some of the characters in Andy’s songs, it is more fun to imagine it as an appeal to his latest paramour for physical restraint in whatever manner of filth our narrator has in mind for the pair.
“That’s Entertainment” opens the second half of Lifestyle with a caustic sauce. It bristles with the wit that makes Andy such a terrific, entertaining lyricist. Elsewhere in the series, we have mentioned his love of esoteric subject matter, but here he demonstrates his skill for deadpan humor with a gleefully cruel narrator out to torment their latest victim. The same intellect which somehow managed to write lyrics that are ambivalent enough to encourage multiple readings but never so indistinct as to seem irresolute or senseless is also at work in the song’s two exquisite guitar solos. The track lasts just over three minutes forty, and about two minutes twenty of that is instrumental, with one long solo as an introduction and another after the first chorus. Both teem with ideas.
So far Lifestyle has whisked us through its luminous landscape with languid ballads, incomprehensibly great pop songs, acoustic reminiscences, pounding rock, and now an extended display of genuinely top rank, majestic lead guitar. Andy is only showing what Silkworm fans already knew though, that he is one of the master guitarists, a player whose work is beautiful, inventive, intricate at times, and yet never forsakes its main responsibility, which is to tear the listener’s head off. Now that is entertainment.
8. “Raging Bull”
“‘Raging Bull’, I think, is one of the smallest masterpieces of a rock song I’ve ever heard.” — Matt Kadane, Couldn’t You Wait?
The subject of this week’s blog is “Raging Bull”, Lifestyle‘s magical eighth track, and there is no better way to begin the entry than with the above quote from Matt Kadane, captured in the extras to Seth Pomeroy’s essential Silkworm documentary Couldn’t You Wait?. With a concision typical of his own superlative rock music, Matt gets to the crux of why “Raging Bull” is so special. Not only is it good — and that’s an understatement — but it is the scale of bassist Tim Midyett’s creation that is so extraordinary. Lasting barely one minute 40 seconds, it is easily the shortest track on Lifestyle, and like a model city carved from a grain of sand, this tiny production contains multitudes.
As might be anticipated from a song called “Raging Bull”, its lyrics are angry. More specifically, they’re accusatory. Read them in isolation from their musical backing and we are presented with a narrator who explicitly points a finger at the world and is, as he says, “foaming at the mouth”. However, we have noted elsewhere in our series how important the full context of performance is to Silkworm’s words. For example, we saw how when singing the final verse of “Slave Wages”, Tim reshuffled the syllables of the lyrics for maximum impact alongside the music, particularly in relation to the playing of drummer Michael Dahlquist. With “Raging Bull” the opening melody is so sweet and compelling, and the main body of the track on which the listener is swept up and away so arresting, that while the choler of the lyrics remains, any harshness is transformed into something else entirely, something good-natured in fact. As we shall see, by the end of the song, for all his complaints and pawing at the ground, our raging bull is quite charming.
The place to start though is perhaps the aforementioned “main body” of the song. Immediately though that phrase is problematic, or possibly just plain inaccurate. “Raging Bull” changes rapidly from moment to moment. It doesn’t really have a section that can be definitively pinned as the main material of the song. Let’s briefly try to run with the raging bull.
The track begins gently with a nursery rhyme melody on just guitar and voice. At around the 20-second mark the melody (different lyrics) is repeated con somma passione. At around the 30-second mark, Michael enters with three proud rat-tat-tat-tat-tats. This signals a shift, but the section is so prominent and memorable that it seems unjust to call it something like a bridge. It preempts the next part of the song where the track reaches its maximum tempo, but vocally Tim comes down on the lyrics so perfectly in this section (“We devolved as a group…”) and a band like Silkworm are so irresistible when they all hit at once like this that it doesn’t feel subordinate to the rest of the song in any way. It jolts the track in preparation for what is to come. Without wanting to mix our animal imagery, it is like a dog shaking itself to life.
Just prior to the 40-second mark the gate is opened, the song surges forward, and the raging bull charges. This lasts for a mighty 12 or 13 seconds before the band pull at the straps and the track momentarily hangs (“You are a stray”) as everything slows. Is this the bridge? Again, no, not really. It connects the previous hard-charging section to the beautiful coda, but it doesn’t clearly stand outside of either. Ending about 20 seconds later with a gloriously conclusive fill from Michael (the 1:14 mark to be precise— it is completely worth zoning in on), it is as notable as the sections on either side of it.
Finally, between the 75- and 100-second marks, our raging bull comes gently to rest with a mostly instrumental ending. Tim intervenes only to repeat the final line of the last verse (“Maybe a raging bull”). After the breathlessness of what has preceded it, the close is not only exceptionally pretty but calming. The track glides to a repose which is perhaps more satisfying than the ending of any other song on the album.
Our sprint through “Raging Bull” has been frantic and, yes, we have spent quite a lot of it pointing at the stopwatch. This is only because “Raging Bull” covers such a vast expanse of ground in record time that it is impossible not to be dazzled. As a listener, it is difficult not to ask, “Did that just happen?!” What is astonishing is that this isn’t some Hüsker Dü-ish hardcore dash or a Todd Rundgren-esque medley where snippets of tracks have been run together and don’t particularly bear any relation to one another. It seems like “Raging Bull” must be composed of five or six micro-songs which have then been combined to create this intricately machined hybrid so exactly correct is each section in and of itself. It actually feels that if the track were to be split apart, the resulting fragments could provide the basis for a whole new mini-album of songs. Rather than feeling discrete or disconnected though, it is instead the case that each section follows on as a tightly logical extension of the last. “Raging Bull” is like the world’s most precisely engineered Rube Goldberg Machine with one strange, scrupulous mechanism flowing without friction into another, and another, and another.
The subject of our narrator’s anger, the thing which has turned him into this raging bull, would seem to be music fans. Not you or I, of course, because being the kind of person who owns Silkworm records or someone who would read a 25,000-word blog about Silkworm ultimately sets you apart. No, the subject would seem to be everyone else. In the extras to Couldn’t You Wait?Tim reveals his provocation to write the song.
“I happened to be watching MTV one evening when they were showing videos and I just was overwhelmed by this feeling of disgust for what I was seeing on the television… It was one of those experiences of seeing something, I don’t even remember what it was, some tip for the top band, and being filled with what probably really was jealousy, but it came off as rage or irritation, and that came out in the song.”
With that in mind the “Raging Bull” could only begin one way: “Caught up in the corner / With the swim instructor’s daughter / Drifted out of orbit’s line again.” It is as intriguing and weird and obtuse as anything in all the world of Silkworm. Is it an image from the video Tim saw, the one which lit the touch-paper? Whatever meaning the listener may see, the lines are an exquisite complement to the melody. As noted, the combination has a kind of nursery rhyme feel to it, something naive and earnest. This has a lasting effect and frames how we perceive the narrator throughout the rest of the song, even as our next lines warn that something ferocious is approaching: “On a hot wind / Some kinda musk drifts in.”
Our narrator immediately vents at the fan who doesn’t get it and would overlook his band for another: “We devolved as a group / You wanted me but now you can’t / Have me at all / Kinda slow on the pick-up.” It is an echo of “Slave Wages” in a way, with a narrator howling frustration at a lack of recognition for all his exertions: “A little too late / No one knows a thing about a raging bull / I been hard at work / Oh no / No stay of execution / No one knows what I’m about / A raging bull / Foaming at the mouth.” These are the first lines where the narrator refers to himself as a raging bull, and in doing so they draw more parallels with “Slave Wages”. There the good humor of the narrator shone through. He described his predicament with such wit and skill that the song could never be read as miserable or depressing. Even in woeful circumstances, he put on a show of bravura. Similarly with “Raging Bull”, by referring to himself as a raging bull and making a display of just how very angry he is, the narrator shows an endearing self-awareness.
Very often songs that rail against the music business can be bitter and not a lot of fun to listen to, and the more explicit they are, the more pronounced this effect can be. Hearing a rock behemoth scoff at the question “Which one’s Pink?” is funny approximately one time and then tiresome thereafter. The narrator of “Raging Bull” avoids this pitfall by acknowledging his rancor. There is also an element of humor to the extremity of his description of himself as “foaming at the mouth”. It could be read as a knowing comic exaggeration. The same goes for the lines “No one knows a thing about a raging bull” and “No one knows what I’m about.” They may be read as implying that he believes he isn’t getting his due recognition, but they may also be seen as a warning to the world to watch out: You don’t know what’s about to hit you! It’s a bit like the ‘Hold me back, guys!‘ move which professional baseball and soccer players sometimes do when they’re looking to throw down with an opponent, but really they don’t want to throw down at all, where, all bluster and screaming and shouting, they storm towards their adversary, slowly, artificially holding themselves back, while waiting and hoping for teammates or officials to intervene before they get to their target. Our narrator’s anger is genuine, but he is also aware enough to stand outside of it and comment on it.
The final verse makes reference to Tim’s inspiration for the song while taking a swipe at fans of that MTV trash: “You are a stray / Kids on the video / They play for you alone / Something with the sound of a rumbling tone.” In this series we have already seen numerous instances of the unique way in which Silkworm often approach their subject matter, whether it’s Andy’s take on the movie Le Mépris in the song “Contempt” or Tim’s reflection on love in “Plain”. Again, this is the case with “Raging Bull”. Rather than merely spit fire at the terrible band in the video, Tim extends the thought and asks who the hell would like this kind of thing anyway. This irritation then somehow becomes twisted and results in the narrator figuratively transforming into a rampaging bull. Typically though, in the midst of such fury, the song ends with eloquence: “Nothing gets you going somehow / What kind of creature will abuse you now / Maybe a raging bull.” As noted the final line is repeated during the coda.
In “Raging Bull”, the blind solipsism and lack of self-awareness which often sour songs about the music business are rejected for good humor and insight. Anger is as valid a mode of expression as any, and Silkworm pursue it with zeal, but also with distinctive wit and intelligence. It would be wrong to think of the song as oblique. It is simply imaginative. Inspired lyrics coupled with the incredible mini-symphony of the music mark this tiny track as the work of a virtuoso songwriter. Blink and you’ll miss it. In contradiction to its size “Raging Bull” is a magnum opus by any standard.
9. “Around the Outline”
Last week our tour of Lifestyle stopped to gaze in wonder at the minor miracle that is “Raging Bull”. At only a hundred seconds long Tim Midyett’s microscopic masterpiece is easily the shortest song on the album. It is no accident then that the track which follows “Raging Bull”, and the subject of this week’s blog entry, is Lifestyle‘s longest song. It is appropriate that “Around the Outline”, a song with a landscape of mountains, peaks, and cliffs, should stand just slightly taller than anything else on the album.
Lifestyle‘s ninth track is still only four minutes long — hardly Der Ring des Nibelungen — but the duration of “Around the Outline” is accentuated by the company it keeps. As noted, preceding it on one side is “Raging Bull”, Lifestyle‘s shortest song, but succeeding it on the other is “Dead Air”, another gem from Tim to be covered in next week’s entry and the album’s second shortest. Lifestyle‘s sequencing is perfectly judged.
We saw earlier in the series how the six tracks of Side A seem to form two mini-trilogies, the album gliding into view and accelerating throughout the first triptych (“Contempt”, “Slave Wages”, “Treat the New Guy Right”), before slowing serenely (“Plain”), catching breath (“Roots”), and taking off again (“Yr Web”), all within the thematically linked second. As Side B unfolds it becomes apparent that, although the second half of the album takes a different tack from the first, once again the ordering of the songs creates a very particular ebb and flow. We began with the graceful fireworks show of Andy Cohen’s “That’s Entertainment” with its languid tempo and kickass guitar solos.
We then hopped, skipped, and jumped with the aforementioned “Raging Bull”, as flawlessly complete a song as you’re ever likely to hear. In response to this tiny, complex moment of beauty, Lifestyle now marches us up to a summit of kinds. Where “Raging Bull” was brief, intricate, highly melodic, and multi-tempo, “Around the Outline” lands with both feet and stomps a path in even circles around the listener. If “Raging Bull” is a portrait carefully etched on the head of a pin, then “Around the Outline” is an imposing monument of a song.
“Around the Outline” begins with a brief second of bass from Tim before Andy and Michael pile in, and the song immediately finds full lock. Lifestyle‘s other ‘lengthy’ — a comparative term if ever — rocker “Yr Web” danced on a pretty melody and a buoyant chorus, which fitted its subject of affection and past love. Lyrically “Around the Outline” concerns itself with almost the opposite. What the two songs do have in common though is the way in which they match their form to their content. And so “Around the Outline’s” images of shadow, cold, and death are carried on a track where cyclicality and dynamism are key. There is no chorus, but instead a series of brief four-line verses. While the melody does not vary greatly throughout the song, the texture of the music shifts and rolls. If this were The Old Grey Whistle Test, Bob Harris would no doubt comment on “the groove that they get going”. It’s another example of the fruit borne when a band play and tour together for so long, never mind how good Michael, Tim, and Andy are as individual players. The interaction between three great musicians, that crushing ‘groove’, isn’t something that can be faked, not even in a studio.
The sound is immediately enormous. Michael fills the center with powerful booming clomps while Tim’s dramatic bassline rolls along underneath on huge, metallic caterpillar tracks. Around this, Andy’s guitar scythes back and forth, circling the rhythm section and giving the track its own particular set of contours. As noted, the pressures within this whirlwind of sound fluctuate, but from beginning to end the potency does not.
Another unexpected element is added when the verses come in, for “Around the Outline” features a lead vocal from Michael, the only one on Lifestyle and extremely rare throughout the entire Silkworm discography. Perhaps the other most memorable example of Michael taking the mic is “Bourbon Beard” on the album Italian Platinum. Our entry for “Yr Web” noted that one of the qualities which mark Michael out as an exceptional drummer is his ability to convey a genuine sense of personality in his playing. The listener gets the feeling that nothing is being held back. There is an unchecked eagerness to his drumming. Every moment is filled with the maximal concentration of energy. This lack of restriction and qualification is also transferred to Michael’s singing. In “Bourbon Beard”, a beautiful bout of boozy philosophy, it comes through as gentle pathos, with Michael evocatively transmitting both the sorrow and hope of the lyrics. In “Around the Outline” the underlying earnestness to his voice is similar, but he uses it to an entirely different effect.
The song sketches a bleak landscape. The first two verses: “Around the outline / Of a mountain’s midriff / A dirt road leading up to a cliff // Around the outline / From a peak to a meadow / No stop signs / No talk of a shadow.” It’s not clear where we are or why we’re here. It’s an empty, ominous place. No road signs. Not even a shadow. And as our journey progresses, the feeling of danger in the air becomes more and more palpable: “Around the outline / Bleakest cold / A wicked murderer who was born old / Around the outline / Of our breath in the wind / Little daggers of frost / That we are breathing in.” The conviction in Michael’s voice completely sells the sense of threat in the lyrics. In pop music sincerity is often equated with demonstrativeness, the harder you sing somehow being equivalent to how much you mean it. Michael shows this up for the falsehood it is. Like his drumming, his voice is imbued with a presence that grabs the listener’s attention. There are quiet passion and seriousness to his delivery which nails the minatory lyrics, relating the song’s series of foreboding images with an undeniably compelling tension.
The musical backing also carries this sense of drama. At the 90 seconds-mark Andy’s guitar drops out as Michael delivers the last set of sinister verses: “Around the outline / Make the men eat rice / They are blind in the heart / They are dead in the eyes // Around the outline / Of a widow’s veil / She’s been killing time / With the head of a nail”. When Andy rejoins he is no longer following the same spirals as before. The shearing, frenetic solo lasts for over a minute. Underneath this, listen from about 2:15 to 3:03 as Michael beats all hell out of his cymbals. He ramps up gradually until from about 2:50 to 3:03 he unleashed bomb after bomb. Earlier we said that the texture of the music “shifts” as the song goes on. Well, maybe that was an understatement. When Michael is done, the texture of the track is a series of craters.
At the three minute-mark Andy’s guitar starts winding out of its groove and drops back. The only place left to go is down, and just before the track begins to slow towards its close, “Around the Outline” makes reference to the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and that legendary riff. It’s appropriate that a song full of images of darkness and menace should end with a nod to a phrase which in its bludgeoning descent conveys empty-eyed nihilism like no other.
On “Around the Outline” Silkworm take a chance to flex their muscles and to stretch out after the nimble maneuvers of “Raging Bull”. Lyrically it also represents a break of kinds from the rest of Lifestyle. There is none of the humor of “Slave Wages” or “That’s Entertainment”. If there is a theme of travel, physical and temporal, running through Lifestyle, then “Around the Outline” is another thrilling leg on the journey. Every voyage must have its stygian leg. Every traveler must face the darkness. With “Around the Outline”, Silkworm confirm that they are capable of taking the listener anywhere.
10. “Dead Air”
In our previous entry Lifestyle led us to the top of the mountain. Even paced and lyrically dark, Lifestyle‘s longest song, the monumental “Around the Outline”, is also arguably, for sheer weight, the album’s most rockin’-est. The shift to track ten, “Dead Air, which is the subject of this week’s entry, takes us — to borrow a phrase from “Around the Outline” — from a peak to meadow. However, it is a meadow full of empty whiskey bottles, discarded fried chicken containers, and abandoned Cadillacs, a gonzo museum of classic Americana.
“Around the Outline” presented a series of apocalyptic images, suggesting ice and danger and murder. It took the listener to its strange interzone on a whomping musical backing, the band locking into a groove that shifted in feel but was unrelenting in potency. The ominous sense of doom created by the track with its scale and darkness hangs behind, even after it has wound to its conclusion. Elsewhere in the series, we have discussed at length how the sequencing of Lifestyle creates a series of ebbs and flows, with the contrasts and similarities between successive songs serving to bind the album together. This may seem obvious. Wasn’t there a time when most albums at least aspired to be heard as a coherent whole? However, in the digital age, when many ‘albums’ are an assemblage of separable units or a collection sequenced for how they might best appeal on iTunes, the unity of Lifestyle is a reminder of how much fun a traditional album can be and how more satisfying a curated collection of songs can be over the shuffle function.
“Dead Air” continues the ‘narrative’. If “Around the Outline” has left sulfurous fumes in the room, then the opening riff of “Dead Air” doesn’t so much open a window as rip the roof off the building. The traditional breathless music-journo descriptors and analogies used in relation to guitar riffs don’t really do it justice: Crunching, meaty, like a dirtbike revving its engine? All that nonsense falls short. After a barely audible count-in, the riff bounces out of the speakers. Suffice to say, if somehow it were possible to re-edit Wire’s classic Pink Flag — an album where guitars frequently sound like a giant chainsawing his way through a mountain with a cavernous, lithic roar — and slip the opening bars of “Dead Air” in amongst that glorious rock-crushing carnage, bass player Tim Midyett’s riff would fit perfectly.
In Seth Pomeroy’s superlative Silkworm documentary Couldn’t You Wait? Adam Reach perhaps nails the key to why Tim’s playing is so distinctive and unusual: “I always thought of Tim as a guitar player who was forced to play bass but made his bass sound like a guitar in the way that he constructed his parts…” Beyond the opening, pick Tim out from amidst Andy Cohen’s guitar, Michael Dahlquist’s drums, and his own vocals, and follow Tim’s playing throughout the track to get a full demonstration of just what Adam is talking about. At times, as “Dead Air” sprints along, bobbing and stomping, it can be difficult to separate Andy and Tim at all.
The dizzy energy of the opening sets the scene for what is to follow. “Dead Air” is yet another consummate minor masterpiece from Tim in the vein of “Slave Wages” and “Raging Bull”. Let’s face it. At this point, most albums are flagging. The notion of front-loading an album is not new. According to statistics, 97% of all albums made between 1990 and 2010, a particularly bad period for the front-loading phenomenon, have never been heard all the way through. No-one knows how they finish. Typically after the first four tracks, all singles if things have gone to plan, the average album from that era jumps off a cliff. And yet here, as Lifestyle rounds third base, is another zippy pop tour de force. If “Treat the New Guy Right” and “Slave Wages” are international smashes that never were, then “Dead Air” is another. The unflinching quality of the songwriting on Lifestyle, the fact that we can go so deep into the album and that the hits keep coming, is a testament to the talent of Tim and Andy. There really isn’t any filler in the Silkworm discography. Songs find their place on an album through merit. Nothing is ever under-written.
As if to demonstrate just that point, at this late stage with “Dead Air” Tim delivers one of his weirdest, funniest lyrics. Again, as with “Slave Wages” the yucks and one-liners, and Tim’s delivery of said, are an exactly correct complement to the thrill of the stampeding music. The specific setting and subject of the song are partially inscrutable but, luckily, in the extras to Couldn’t You Wait? Tim is gracious enough to lift the curtain on this mysterious gem:
“Dead Air” is a two-part song. The first part of the song is about Hank Williams dying in a Cadillac behind wherever the hell it was. Was it behind the Grand Ole Opry or something like that? I forget exactly what the story was. The first half of the song is my stupidly half-remembered version of how Hank Williams died and then the second half of the song is about Jim Morrison dying a similar kind of death but much more ignominiously, a much fatter more bloated version of the same death.”
It’s the half-fictional element of Tim’s re-imagining of the two stories which makes “Dead Air” so engrossing. The real details of Hank Williams’ death are thoroughly miserable. He passed away at age 29 of heart failure likely aggravated by alcohol and pills. The legendary country star did die in a Cadillac, but it was somewhere on a road trip between Bristol, Virginia, and Oak Hill, West Virginia. It was only after pulling in at a gas station that his driver realized Williams had gone.
Jim Morrison’s death is similarly wretched. The Doors frontman died in a bathtub in a Parisian apartment at age 27, the official cause of death also heart failure. A straight account of these famous deaths would be a country song in and of itself. Instead, as noted, “Dead Air” fictionalizes the macabre tales, over-writing and reinventing details as it goes. In addition to this, the narrator brings an undeniable raconteurism to bear on his retelling of these modern myths. Throughout this series we have of course avoided conflating the narrator of the songs with their author, and we shall continue that here, but it must be noted how well Tim creates these voices in his songs. We saw it previously in “Slave Wages”. As the narrator recounts his woes and struggles, he does it with such wit and playfulness that there is a sense that the listener is being beckoned to pull up a barstool and Wait till you here this one…. With “Dead Air” the result is a song that is at times as funny as it is poignant.
The first verse begins: “Garden of the opry star / Roads are filled with rusty cars / Only place with blue sky / Had it painted over natural light” Is this a reference to Nashville’s famous Hermitage Hotel? Williams was a frequent guest at the Hermitage and stayed there the night before making his debut at the Opry on 11th June 1949. One of the unusual things about the Hermitage is its veranda, which is enclosed, its arched ceiling painted with a blue sky complete with clouds. On the night recounted in “Dead Air” though Williams is not sleeping in any hotel. The verse continues: “I can sleep in a Cadillac / Parked in the alley with the engine running / Sometimes I think I’ll never go back”. As droll as some of the later verses are, these lines hint at the darker matters at hand. Our star has doubts about his art. Is it the stage of the Opry to which he fears he may never return?
The first two lines of the chorus describe the adulation enjoyed by the music world’s few select golden gods: “And the whole crew will look up to me / And the whole sea of people will part”. As if to lift his spirits heading into this sea of worship, Tim stretches the last word of the verse (“back”) into a twist of syllables and melodic la-la-las which propels him smack bang into the the first word of the chorus. It is reminiscent of the strangled, garbled ending which Tanya Donelly, another songwriter with a gift for sublime pop music, gives to the end of the choruses in the Throwing Muses track “Not Too Soon”.
With this flourish of inarticulate melody, Tanya unleashes some manner of cosmic energy which forces every listener after first hearing the song to immediately play it again a minimum of twenty times in a row. This is truly the reason why pop music is sometimes related to sugar. It is not sweetness which is the commonality, but rather compulsion. Tim performs a mini-version of this in his brief interjection which bridges verse and chorus. Whereas in “Not Too Soon” Tanya’s wordless melody provided the song with its peerless narcotic hook, in “Dead Air” it functions more like a shot of gasoline on a fire, bombing the track onwards and lifting the narrator and listeners up from the unhappy misgivings with which the verse concludes.
Immediately though, after greeting the crew and his adoring fans, our narrator falls back into gloom and gets to the very heart of his despair. The chorus concludes: “Oh to find out that part of you is fake / That there is no other reliable source for your heartbreak / The street name for ‘deaf’ is still gonna be ‘dead air'”. He is asking what in one form or another is one of the enduring questions in popular music: Are you for real?. Our narrator seems to doubt whether or not he actually means the songs he is singing. Is all the romance and angst just an act? His remark that there is “no other reliable source” for his heartbreak, could be heard as a simple cry of artistic despair. Perhaps there really is no way out of his predicament. And if the star of the Opry cannot write and sing sincerely, then what good is he?
Then again, there is a more sinister reading, one which is compelling given the identity of the two stars who are the inspiration for the song and the twist which the line is given on the chorus’ second go-round later in the song. Perhaps he is gesturing to something more specific, something much darker and self-destructive. It is easy to imagine that when our narrator declares that there is “no other reliable source” for his heartbreak he is doing so while nodding to the half-drained whiskey bottle he is holding in his hand. Whether it’s Hank Williams and Jim Morrison, or Dylan Thomas, or Billie Holiday, or Charles Bukowski, or Paul Verlaine, and on, and on, there is a long storied tradition of artists finding inspiration or solace in booze, usually to terrible ends. The bottom of that bottle is the only place our narrator (Hank) can locate the heartbreak his art requires.
A ferocious, jagged guitar break rips into the space left behind by the chorus. The very second it hightails it back out again, Brett Grossman’s brilliant drunken piano barrels into the mix and proceeds to careen blindly around the second verse, providing the track with adornment which is both perfect and perfectly shambolic. Instantly we are in Paris and we are not in good shape: “Flown in on an airplane / Scrubby little runway / Red wine and a stubby cock / Sur la table, you gimp / You limp when you walk”. If Hank was despondent, then Jim is belligerent. Perhaps he is referring to himself. Maybe his weight is causing him problems walking.
However, the mention of red wine and tables also suggests a different scenario, one which is much more fun to imagine, one where our bloated narrator is sitting in a Parisian restaurant like some bizarro Henry VII and is throwing his napkin at an unfortunate waiter, haranguing all around him, all temper tantrums and trapped wind. The lapse into broken French evokes a strange, terrible, comic scene, full of profanities and outré insults. “Sur la table, you gimp / You limp when you walk” is one of the more choice internal rhymes you will ever hear in a rock song. Again, where Hank appeared a tragic figure, Jim appears to be rising to the role of absurd rock exile.
His parting lines are ludicrous in every sense: Insane, daft, and most importantly playful: “You know I’ll eat anything that’s cooked / I know you think I’m crazy / But I’ve never been thinner / Soon I will bid you my leave”. It is possible to run back and around these lines a hundred times and still be alternately dazzled and befuddled by them, all the while chuckling like an idiot. The key to any good diet is that the food should be cooked, right? Nothing crazy about that. Never been thinner, eh?
In his delivery of Jim’s almost surreal gastronomical treatise, Tim brings to bear the touch of the bar-room philosopher mentioned earlier. On the one hand, this insane food-related outburst is extremely funny because it doesn’t appear to make any sense. But on the other, he sounds so hip as he drops this knowledge on us that maybe there’s just something to it! In the space of ten seconds, Tim imbues our narrator with all the qualities of both clown and savant. He becomes a preposterous figure who is at the same time completely compelling. The character in “Dead Air” is a fictionalized, sketched version of Jim Morrison, but in its caricature, with the duality just noted, the song identifies why he is still in many ways the archetypal rock star. The things which make him so cool (the lyrics, the leather trousers, the ‘Lizard King’, everything else) are also the things which make him, again, so ludicrous (the lyrics, the leather trousers, the ‘Lizard King’, everything else). The greatest rock stars must embody both extremes. Anyone who thinks The Doors are uncool is missing the point.
The second and final chorus is a repeat of the first, except for the one change we flagged earlier: “Oh to find out that part of you is fake / That there is no reliable source for your sauce”. Just as in the final lines of Andy Cohen’s “That’s Entertainment” with its “You’re for me / You’re foreign”, the half-rhyme is too good to pass up. There are clear parallels between Hank Williams and Jim Morrison, their lives, and their deaths, but “sauce” is the link on which “Dead Air” turns.
One more swift, rasping guitar break, and we’re out. In just over two minutes Silkworm have captured the world (again): Nashville, Hank Williams, the Grand Ole Opry, Cadillacs, hotels, booze, death, the dilemma of authenticity in art(!), Paris, Jim Morrison, Jim Morrison’s cock, food, a quick French lesson, oh, and the world’s worst dietary advice. We can say with 100% confidence, without any fear of contradiction, with absolute cast-iron certainty that no other single work of art in any medium, no song, no poem, no movie, no painting, no 12-part mini-series, contains this specific set of subjects, and if by some bizarre fluke one ever did, there is no chance in hell that it would approach this exotic miscellany in the way Tim does.
In this, “Dead Air” encapsulates not just why Silkworm are so beloved but also why they are one of the great rock bands of all time. Plenty of artists have plenty of songs with the quirky subject matter. They namecheck a classical author; they pretend they’re living in the future, or they imagine the world through the eyes of a badger. Most often though there is nothing more to it. The novelty factor is the sum total of all they have going for them. “Quirky” suggests odd or off-beat, but the term also contains a sense of the diminutive. If something is quirky, then it is lightweight, zany for zany’s sake. “Dead Air” is absurd and, once again, ludicrous, but it is certainly not quirky. It takes its esoteric subject matter and with a serious breadth of wit and intellect discovers all of human life. Silkworm never fail to rock like hell. In “Dead Air” they also show their unerring capacity to find tragedy and life-affirming humor in the very strangest of places.
11. “Ooh La La”
Lifestyle‘s tenth track, “Dead Air” represented the final of the album’s hard-charging ultra-compact pop dynamos. Like “Slave Wages”, “Treat the New Guy Right”, and “Raging Bull” — a catalogue of wonders sharing multiple songwriters but all cut from the same cloth — “Dead Air” created its own world of characters and places and condensed this multitude into a couple of minutes of electrifying, inventive, and deceptively intricate rock and roll. The song zipped the listener from Nashville to Paris, pondering the meaning of it all and offering libations to Hank and Jim.
After this whistle-stop tour of the weird and the regretful, Lifestyle‘s penultimate track, the more downbeat and gentile “Ooh La La”, which is the subject of this week’s blog entry, begins the process of easing the pace of proceedings and ultimately winding the album to a close. It is as if “Dead Air” is such a rollicking storm of humor and sadness, and propelled along with such force by Tim Midyett’s high-torque riffing, that it takes the braking distance provided by not one but two tracks to slow Lifestyle to a stationary conclusion.
“Ooh La La” is a cover of the title track of the Faces’ 1973 album. Written by the two Ronnies, Lane and Wood, the song is arguably as iconic in UK culture as their namesakes’ (comedy duo Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett) “Four Candles” sketch. It may seem ridiculous to draw a comparison between the two, but both bear claim to a similar kind of status. They are examples of artifacts that seem to have always been present and familiar and are now so deeply imprinted on the collective memory that at this point they are almost like folk music.
“Ooh La La” is atypical of the Faces’ discography in more than a few ways. Most notably it is a rare example of a Ronnie Wood lead vocal. Usually, of course, those duties fell to Rod Stewart. Secondly, the Faces were a ferocious rock band. On a track like “Pool Hall Richard”, for example, one of many perfect Faces songs, it feels as if all needles are in the red as if the band are pushing everything, their equipment, themselves, the listener’s speakers, to the point of some kind of ecstatic booze-fuelled disaster. By contrast though “Ooh La La” is relatively sedate. It is built on big, multi-tracked acoustic strums. It skips rather than stomps along. It is bright and brisk and all quite cheerful, sir.
As might be expected with such an iconic track, the song has been covered many times. Most of these versions overwhelmingly replicate the spirit of the original. They play around with the edges of the song but seem unable to resist the central dancing melody of the chorus. They especially fall into line around the “when I was stronger” line where they cannot help but echo Ronnie Woods’ performance. For example, covers by Manchester Orchestra and Tim Timebomb and Friends offer both a quiet acoustic take and a ska version of the song, but even the former which strives for a sense of solemnity ends up sounding quite chipper in spite of itself.
Another problem which both of those versions have is how ill-fitting the lyrics are to their respective bands. “Ooh La La” is a grandson’s recounting of the advice given to him by his granddad, which can be broadly summed up thus: Beware women! They’re predators! And they’ll get you! With its now-archaic reference to “can-can” dancers and “women’s ways”, “Ooh La La” is very much a product of its time and place. Its man-of-the-world, dude philosophy is incongruous to the prim AOR of Manchester Orchestra, and any even vague lyrical nod to the Moulin Rouge sounds utterly daft when voiced by a bunch of aging punks skanking it up.
In the last decade or so the song has become ubiquitous as a staple of TV advertising campaigns, shilling for everything from mobile phones to sofas, the UK National Lottery, supermarkets, and most recently beer. Pairing “Ooh La La” with that last item would seem to be so appropriate that it is almost surprising that it took the advertising world so long to make the connection because although, as noted, it stands apart from The Faces’ discography in many ways, in one key respect it is completely typical. The Faces had a reputation as a gang of hard-drinking, partying, womanizing rapscallions. Their raucous, rip-roaring music speaks to this in a way which 40 years later makes the listener wonder how they were able to play at all since it is hard to imagine a single moment of the day when they didn’t have a blonde under each arm and a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a fag in the other. The only potential problem with getting the band to sell your beer is that they might just neck the lot instead. The Faces were geezers, by the British definition of the word, and it is this spirit which is captured in their original version of “Ooh La La”. The song is a wink and a nod and slap on the back. It’s The same again, John. Doubles this time!. Solid gold geezers. Most cover versions do not know how to deal with this aspect of the song. However, this is exactly what makes it so ideal for Silkworm.
Andy Cohen takes lead vocals on the unique version of “Ooh La La” which appears on Lifestyle and, in theme and tone, Wood and Lane’s song is so close to some of Andy’s own compositions that without prior knowledge of the Faces and without checking the credits on the sleeve notes it would be easy to assume that he had written it himself. In our blog entry on Lifestyle‘s seventh track “That’s Entertainment” we saw how Andy created a narrator who, relishing his Lothario status, loved cracking jokes as much as he did breaking hearts. It is a voice which recurs elsewhere in the Silkworm discography, perhaps appearing to best effect in the track “Beyond Repair” from the 1998 album Blueblood, Lifestyle’s‘s immediate predecessor. Not only does it begin “I’ve been around the world / I’ve seen a million girls / And I’ve been touched by every one of them”, but just under halfway through in lines which with a bit of rearrangement for the purposes of meter would be a perfect addendum to “Ooh La La” it notes “In Havana, the ladies will help ya / Improve your Spanish at the Tropicana / For just as long as the pesos hold out”. It is fair to say that Andy is well practiced to tackle a song like “Ooh La La”.
Musically Silkworm rearrange the track. Gone from the original are the jaunty acoustic guitars and in their place comes full-bore ‘Worm: Tim playing the instantly identifiable main riff on bass, plating it with heavy metallic edges; Michael Dahlquist on drums, alternately sneaking along and detonating all manner of TNT as the song progresses; and Andy on electric guitar, filling in the gaps and dropping in a rasping solo. The track is bigger and far more dramatic than the original. Where The Faces’ version was a happy romp, this is something more majestic. The Silkworm version seems grander and several beats slower. The notion that there is a significant difference in tempo would seem to be supported by the fact that it is just over twenty seconds longer than the original. However, play the tracks side by side and they do mostly keep pace with one another. The 20 seconds is actually gained because of an extra repeat of the chorus which Silkworm include after the instrumental section which runs roughly from the one and a half minute to two-minute marks. The Faces head straight out of the instrumental into the next verse (“When you want her lips / You get a cheek”), whereas the dynamics which the band have freshly fashioned for the song seem to dictate that this would not work for the Silkworm version.
Silkworm pick their way through the verses, the ear of the listener guided by Tim’s bass. However when they arrive at the chorus, Tim, Michael, and Andy all come in at once on the first beat (“I wish…”), and the track explodes. There is a visceral rush of energy. Straightaway Michael heightens the effect. Suddenly there seems to be space in the track, and he fills it with massive whooshing crashes. The contrast he creates between the seismic shockwaves of his bass drum and the shimmer of his hi-hat somehow seems to emphasize the enormity of the punishment he is dealing to the snare in between, the sound of which conjures up images of upstrokes several feet higher than could feasibly be possible. His drum track itself is a mini, compact lesson in dynamics. And so rather than scale downwards at the end of the instrumental section, Silkworm reach up and offer a repeat of their hair-raising version of the chorus. In the Faces version, there is not a particularly great shift in dynamics from verse to chorus. Double-tracked vocals alter the texture of the song, but nothing more than that. However, with Silkworm the difference is so vast that if they had down-shifted at the end of the instrumental into another verse, it is easy to imagine the deadening effect this would have had on the track.
The consequence of all this — the weird time-warping effect which Silkworm achieve, whereby the song appears to be slower than it is; the extra heft given by their fully electric reworking of the track; and the unique combination of Michael, Andy, and Tim as players — is to instill the song with a pathos which is lacking from the original. Not only that but they manage to retain a touch of the geezer-ishness of the Faces’ version. While the three elements listed above create the perfect environment for this balance, key above all else is Andy’s vocal. When he sings about the backstage at the can-can he does it credibly. He sells it. And when he sings the chorus he hits it at what must be the very limits of his lungs. The combination of his tone and the force in his voice suggests a knowingness and an even balance of wit and regret. This is jack-the-lad all grown up. In this sense, Silkworm explore the lyrics with subtlety and eye for contrast which is missing from other versions of the song. If the original looks back on the carnal encounters of its younger days with champagne-tinted sunglasses, then the Silkworm version remembers not just the fun, but every sticky, humiliating moment that went with it.
Silkworm recorded a number of cover versions. An early single combined their take on Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on one side with the Comsat Angels’ “Our Secret” on the other. There was even an EP of covers, 2003’s excellent “You are Dignified”. The interpretation of “Ooh La La” contained on Lifestyle bears comparison with any of them. In many ways, it is an example of an ideal cover version. It takes the essence of the original and locates previously unrecognized nuances in the song, giving voice to what was before silent. It is not slavish, nor is it flippant or ironic. It becomes a Silkworm song.
“Ooh La La” also functions perfectly within the context of the album. After the wild rushes and rocking snarls contained on side B of Lifestyle, “Ooh La La” applies the brakes. While it rocks hard in those choruses, the song offers pause. The narrator of “Ooh La La” stops, literally to take perspective, looking back on his life to consider what could have gone differently. On our journey through Lifestyle, we have been to so many places and seen so many strange things. “Ooh La La” stands still and looks back. It suggests we take a deep breath. It prepares us for landing.
12. “The Bones”
It’s barely conceivable that after just over half an hour we have arrived at the final point on the itinerary set out by Silkworm on their remarkable seventh album Lifestyle. It has been an odyssey that has taken in Gallic ennui, failed marriages, Fritz Lang, down at heel rock stardom, small town scrapes, mad affairs, love, home, nostalgia, braggadocio, darkness, Hank Williams, Jim Morrison, a glorious Faces cover, and every point of connection and disconnection in between.
With its elegance and warmth “The Bones”, Lifestyle‘s 12th and closing track, and the subject of this week’s blog entry, encourages us to pause and take stock. The song may be talking about life itself, but through its thoughtful disposition it also gives the listener cause to look back and consider the parade of human life and the wild journey along which this remarkable collection of exquisitely realised songs has taken her.
Silkworm had a knack for classic closing tracks, and the Tim Midyett penned “The Bones” is among their very best. Throughout their discography the band seemed to be able to judge exactly what was required to give each album its perfect conclusion.
The Joel Phelps songs “Pearl Harbor” and “Pilot”, from the albums L’ajre and In the West respectively, are both typically terrific songs, but “Bloody Eyes” on the third album Libertine was arguably the band’s first great track to function specifically as a closer. It feels made for that position. Although very different in arrangement and feel, the prettiness of its melody and the sentiment of the last verse (“Don’t look back behind you / That’s my best advice”) make it in some ways an unlikely relation of “The Bones”.
Elsewhere in their catalogue, Silkworm made sure that none of their albums ever ended with a whimper. Stand-out closers include “Don’t Make Plans This Friday” from Firewater, a rousing novella of a track that features a refrain which deserves to be carved in stone: “Friday night is sacred / It’s not time to be wasted”. There’s also the honking-squonking “A Cockfight of Feelings” from Italian Platinum, which in its final verse features, almost apropos of nothing, possibly the greatest couplet ever to grace a rock song, the baffling undeniable showstopper: “The worst work on Earth is on a turkey farm / When those birds get excited, sound the alarm”.
While a drop-the-mic moment such as the last verse of “A Cockfight of Feelings” is just the ending Italian Platinum needs, the same would not be appropriate for Lifestyle. The album effectively floated into earshot with the heat-dazed opener “Contempt”, and considering the wit, intelligence, grace, and weirdness that we have seen along the way, it’s right that Lifestyle should end on a moment of poignance and humanity.
“The Bones” follows the trajectory set by the preceding track, the cover of The Faces “Ooh La La”. It turns the volume further down just as “Ooh La La” did with respect to its predecessor the galloping “Dead Air”. Where the old granddad of “Ooh La La” offered advice, so too does the narrator of “The Bones”. However, whereas The Faces song counselled about the dangers of those evil women, as rock songs of the ’70s were wont to do, “The Bones” moves for higher ground and seeks to reassure the listener that no matter what’s dragging you down or whatever pain you may be feeling, you’ll get through. There will be a time when the trouble is over. The world turns and you will still be here to enjoy it. As we shall see, “The Bones” is literally life-affirming.
An acoustic guitar that forms the backbone of the track — pardon the pun — welcomes the listener in. It’s a beautiful, gentle melody. It feels as if the listener is being called home. Tim begins: “The bones you’re built on / Have held you in good stead / The bones you’re built on / Have not crumbled yet”.
Bones have traditionally more than any other part of our bodies signified what is most essential about us as human beings. Other examples of conventional somatological and poetic connections might be between the heart and emotion, or the blood and life force. For the Ancient Romans the liver was the seat of desire.
Today, however, it’s our bones which we believe constitute our very core, the thing on which everything else physically and metaphorically hangs. If we experience an extreme of emotion, then we are said to feel it in our bones. The idea that they might actually tremble under the force of stress or fear has a long history (“tremis ossa pavore, Horace, Satires II, vii, 57). Therefore, the notion that your bones are strong and healthy and have not failed you is significant. It suggests an emotional strength, deep and constant in the fibers of your being.
The song continues: “Something really whacked you out / Got you by the throat / But some kind of histrionics / Pulled you through / You’re gonna live a long time before you go”. Beautiful twinkling jewellery box piano enwreathes the first two lines. On the third it is joined by the beguiling chime of an electric guitar. There will be no drums on “The Bones”. The song is carried by the intertwining of its delicate lines of melody.
At any time, but perhaps particularly at this moment when self-affirmation and empty positivity seem so central to the popular culture, the Top Forty is full of mawkish songs that tell their listeners that they are beautiful, unique, special, and altogether terrific. You’re number one! These are easy sentiments to generate and accept if the songwriter and her audience have no concern for triteness and irony. It’s much harder to convey a feeling of warmth and positivity in a way which is thoughtful, adult, intelligent, and convincing, especially to an audience of grown-up GenX rock fans. With the next lines Silkworm pulls it off: “The bones you’re built on are beautiful off-white / The bones you’re built on carry you all right / And you shouldn’t care who knows it now / Don’t forget to eat / At least you know / They’re gonna last you through the week”.
Tim’s vocals are perfect. We have seen elsewhere in this series, particularly with the songs “Slave Wages” and “Dead Air”, how attuned he is, not just to the importance of words but to the manner of their delivery. His voice has a natural softness but also an earnestness which here he wraps around the lyrics to full effect. From “And you shouldn’t care…” all the way to the end, he pushes harder and tempers his words with a kind of pleading.
At this point in the song lesser artists would open their lungs and jump on the lyrics throat first, aiming for a baroque and hysterical finish, the overwrought being a popular signifier of the authentic as any TV talent show will attest. Instead, Tim sounds emotional but in control. Serious but sympathetic. The joke at the end (“At least you know / They’re gonna last you through the week”) offers a wink to the listener and breaks any tension that may have been building to this point. Reassurance like this is a serious business.
The final three lines are simple and direct: “You’re gonna live a long time / And I’m gonna live a long time too / We’re all gonna live a long time before we go”. One wants to believe him. The message is not that everything will be OK now and forever. Rather, it’s that life will go on and you will be here and I will be here. That much we can count on, and actually that’s a lot.
We suggested in the introduction to this series that one of the great qualities of Silkworm’s music is that it rejects as an illusion the eternal and the metaphysical, the numinous nonsense to which so much classic rock alludes. Instead, the goal of Silkworm is the contingent, the beauty to be found in each moment as it happens. “The Bones” encapsulates this. There is no reason to be afraid. Life is here to be lived. It’s a definitive conclusion to the album.
Over 12 tracks Lifestyle has described and redescribed moments of love, excitement, and wonder, and over these last 12 weeks we have tried to grab them, examine them, and savour them. In some ways it would be misleading to describe Lifestyle as a classic, although in terms of songwriting, singing, playing, kickass aesthetics, and everything else right down to its cover art, it very obviously is; the album is a work of art.
However, the notion of a “classic” suggests something monolithic, something old, a work which has passed tests of respectability and conventionality in order to be admitted into the canon, presumably some cobweb-strewn hallway with dust-covered busts of Eric Clapton, Santana, and The Eagles lining each side. No, as we suggested in the introduction to this series, Lifestyle conveys a sense of freedom, a complete unanchoring from expectation and cliché. Its songs seem to be constantly shifting. The feeling of newness and self-creation is so acute that it seems possible that each time one plays Lifestyle it might contain a completely new set of songs. It’s the opposite of a hoary old classic.
It would be even more egregious to call Lifestyle an indie rock classic. It was released on Touch and Go and Silkworm were as independent as it gets, but ‘indie rock’ is a problematic term. Does it signify an aesthetic? A means of production or distribution? Whatever we take the notion of ‘indie rock’ to mean, if we apply it to Silkworm and in this case Lifestyle, it becomes redundant. Silkworm were one of the all-time great rock bands and Lifestyle is an all-time great rock album.
Further explanation? We mean Led Zep great. Jesus Lizard great. That kind of great. While over the course of these entries we have tried to explain why they are so great, to convey a sense of why their music is such a thrill, the only way to really understand is to listen for yourself. So, please, give Lifestyle a spin. Take that wild journey. See where it takes you.
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These articles originally ran weekly during August through September of 2015.