They Shoot Horses Dont They?: Pick Up Sticks

Zach Schonfeld

Pick Up Sticks is a trip worth taking for those who find indie-rock of today to be too... well, sane.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

Pick Up Sticks

Label: Kill Rock Stars
US Release Date: 2007-06-05
UK Release Date: Available as import

It takes all of three seconds to realize They Shoot Horses Don’t They? has really quite little in common with the exhausting 1969 film of the same name. The latter happens to be a subtly brilliant period piece depicting the raw desperation of the Great Depression and paced slower than a coma. The Vancouver-based band, however, is equal parts whimsical and spastic, combining seemingly unrelated elements into a unique musical frenzy alight with paranoia and joy. It’s jumbled, for sure, a mess, even. But when has a chaotic mess ever sounded this joyfully unhinged? “Sing this noise / This drum / Well, here we come”, announces vocalist Nut Brown on album opener “One Last Final Push”, and the band proceeds to do just that. The band’s sophomore effort is unlikely to convert any of those who heard the band’s 2006 debut, Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, as an overly grating slice of insanity. Conversely, it will no doubt satisfy those who gravitate towards music with a hint of the unsettling and unhinged. Count me in.

Dissecting the diverse influences in They Shoot Horses’ music is akin to picking out individual spices from a Thanksgiving dinner. The choppy guitar textures evoke early Modest Mouse, Brown’s alternation between tortured moan and hysterical yelp occasionally reeks of David Byrne, all pervaded by a jittery brass section stolen from your high school marching band. The overall seasick atmosphere and complex arrangements, though, have garnered the group comparisons to everything from Pere Ubu to Captain Beefheart at his most chaotic peak. Throw in a dash of Animal Collective and Mr. Bungle for good measure and stir heavily. This absurd fusion has inspired the genre label Circus Rock. The band (or is cult a better word?) was formed back in 2003 by Brown and drummer Julia. They Shoot Horses’ convulsive energy and damn near limitless originality puts them right at home with Kill Rock Stars, alongside big-name label-mates The Decemberists and Deerhoof. While all the elements of Boo Hoo Hoo Boo are still in place, the ultimate effect is creepier, sacrificing much of that album’s delightfully hooky instincts. Welcome to the world of Pick Up Sticks. Tread with caution and leave your sanity at the door.

“What Is That?” is my personal favorite on the album, a fantastic example of this unique amalgam at work. The fuzzy synthesizer competes with a call-and-response chorus of circus-like horns. As per usual, the lyrics express wonder and fright towards mundane aspects of nature. “What is that there? / Is it sweet? Is it hanging from a vine? / And it’s mine oh mine”. The vocals are a bundle of nerves up to the chorus, at which point Brown switches to a mildly disturbing falsetto that would fit right in on Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) (I can’t be the only one to immediately think of “Put A Straw Under Baby”, can I?). Similarly, “The Hallway” turns a simple stroll through a hallway into a treacherous journey, leading into another falsetto-laden chorus.

On the flipside, single “A Place Called La” is as blatantly poppy as the group gets, with a real chord progression! Played on a church organ, no less! Needless to say, the frantic vocals and oddly observational lyrics (“You’re not speaking clear! / You’re not here at all! / Your blank stare scares me half to death!”) aren’t exactly gonna attract any John Mayer fans, but it’s the thought that counts. The group enters an exhilarating build-up of intensity and screaming (“Does anyone here know a place called La?!”) that I imagine must be a truly exuberant display of energy when performed live. For fans, it’s reminiscent of the catharsis that arrived in the finale of Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, during the final two minutes of “Apple”.

Another highlight is “The Guest”, which starts with an off-kilter acoustic guitar riff and only builds from there. The entire concept of traditional melody is chewed up and spit back in a warped, deformed fashion, leaning more towards layering than conventional chord changes. The line between deranged and just plain obnoxious is a thin one, but They Shoot Horses Don’t They? tread it with care. Then there’s “Busted Bell”, which opens with a vocal melody circling around a burping horn part amidst a swamp of reverb. Unfortunately, the rest of the song fails to ever lock into a groove and stick with it, effectively preventing it from having the same effect as “A Place Called La”. On “You Know Me”, Brown pushes a sing-songy melody in ¾ atop a layer of crashes and moans until the two-minute mark, when the band suddenly switches to a (nearly) acapella refrain. Disorienting? Check! Abrupt? Check! They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Finding joy in sudden movements since 2003!

On “Wrong Directions”, the album closes on a triumphant note. Listen to Brown shriek in unison with a guitar riff straight off of Franz Ferdinand’s debut and try not to dance. By this point, some listeners will be enthralled by the unique nervous-breakdown-on-tape that just ended; others pressed STOP a minute into track one, and that’s just dandy, as well. The point remains that those who prefer “Revolution 9” over “Hey Jude” or After Hours over Raging Bull could do much worse than seek out Pick Up Sticks. It doesn’t quite match the spontaneous (and yes, tuneful) wallop of Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, but it does prove that ‘wondrous cacophony’ is not always a contradiction in terms. As to where They Shoot Horses Don’t They? can possibly go from here, the only response comes in the form of one of the album’s song titles. “That’s a Good Question”.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.