Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin is an interesting band for at least two reasons: they’re very good, and they’re also an example of a phenomenon that seems just about to keel over. They’re a local band made good: there’s a couple of locally released albums I’ve never been able to get my hands on, but they were presumably only ready for national buzz with 2005’s stellar Broom, which is probably the most underrated pop record of its kind since Brendan Benson’s Lapalco. Despite Noel Murray’s typically cogent eulogy for the local band, I can’t really summon up much mourning for its passing (which seems pretty much assured now that any band worth its salt will be overhyped and spat out on the blog circuit before so much as an EP comes out). A while back, Sufjan Stevens—normally as mild a soul as there is in indie rock’s cloistered world—delivered a mild dose of invective against “Friend Rock,” where your friends try to guilt trip you into showing up and showing enthusiasm for their crappy music rather than trying to go out and build up a fan base the right way. It’s real, and it starts with local bands, who frequently seem to be playing to people convinced that they’re amateur talent scouts, loyal girlfriends and people who can’t be bothered to seek out better.
Broom was a scrappy collection of songs that were either acoustic or so low in the amp department they might as well have been: it seemed to have been recorded in a suburban living room on weekends, and it was refreshing. The hooks were right there, so obvious as to be startling, and the lyrics weren’t half bad either: collegiate grad students saving up to marry their girlfriends, sincere if stupid chain-smokers in disappointed love (“I smoked all night and I coughed all day”), girls aplenty. Pershing isn’t as good an album (though it’s quite good, and the fact that it’s been slept on so roundly makes me question this whole blog-rock thing for about the 14th time this week), but it’s also less obvious—presumably with a slightly higher budget and a wider range of experiences to draw upon, SSLYBY make the hooks more oblique and the lyrics near-impossible to hear.
Like a good seduction should, Pershing begins with its most obvious song: safe to say if you don’t like “Glue Girls,” leave now. “Two sisters ever so inseparable” is the opening thrust of a dilemma that’s psychologically plausible, slightly fairy-tale-esque, and super endearing: a boy trying to date one sister, unable to get between the pair (they’re stuck on each other). It’s as deceptively relaxed as their best songs: they’re halfway through an acoustic guitar breakdown (complete with something that sounds like a cheap metronome trying to simulate a cowbell) before I realized how hard it is to pull off an effective breakdown that way (for me, it’s certainly more interesting than some studio hack’s “soaring” solo). “Maybe if I lay low, love will fall around my door” just about sums up their MO. It’s adorable: they’re the kind of band that earns every “woah-ah” rather than seeming lazy about it. It’s the best song on the album.
There’s a muted trumpet on “Boring Fountain,” which represents the absolute height of extravagance for these guys, though the song is a bit too cautious about leaving the A-major chord under all but the direst need: as if in thrall to Krautrock, they stick to it for the last 1:15. I’m more into “Dead Right,” an acoustic sketch with a simple plea: “I don’t wanna get drunk/I just wanna get some.” A lot of this stuff, though, seems pleasant but only halfway there: “The Beach Song” hints at the urge to get all Beach Boys and soar with the harmonies, but SSLYBY’s diffidence—previously their strongest point, their modesty making their accomplishments that much more charming—finds them rarely more than very pleasant on this disk, cranking their version of ’90s jangle. This album should be louder, but, ironically, it’s somehow even more pastel. Exceptions: “Modern Mystery,” which swerves from crush-confessional to motivational sketch in four economical lines: “I think you are so annoying / That’s why you get so disappointed / I swear you are so important / Nothing you do is pointless.” (Not deathless poetry by any means—the band is just this side of emo stupidity—but their understated quaver steers away from the threat of melodrama.) The ambivalence is underscored by a chorus which moves from frustrated bass-lines to, suddenly, a fluidity and rhythmic counterpoint that wouldn’t be out-of-place for Franz Ferdinand, only with a fourth of the volume. OK, maybe “Glue Girls” isn’t the best song here. I like SSLYBY a lot, still… but I like Broom more, and I think everyone with a taste for this kind of thing should check it out.
My friend and former roommate Andrew Unterberger chastised me junior year for having no familiarity with Smashing Pumpkins: if I didn’t hear them at the right time, he cautioned, the albums would have no meaning. They’d be fine, but they wouldn’t carry the same weight and impress themselves on me as deeply. Those words were ringing at the back of my mind as I tackled Portishead’s 1994 heavyweight Dummy, prepping myself context-wise for their highly acclaimed comeback.
I did hear Massive Attack at the right time: i.e., when I was 16 or so, which is the perfect time to hear everything. Blue Lines, aside from the kind of embarrassingly, overtly “inspirational” finale “Hymn Of The Big Wheel,” strikes me as pretty much ideal: both of its time and a little out of it. But college folk seemed serenely indifferent to their charms; cranking Portishead at a party, though, pretty much guaranteed someone was going to get laid. That’s about it for context.
It took me a few listens, but I finally get the album’s charms. Typically, my favorite track—“It’s A Fire”—gets no fucking respect (it was only on the North American edition, fer chrissake). The lyrics are, well, stupid (“So breathe on sister, breathe on”), which seems to be par for the trip-hop course, but it sounds like they jacked Al Green’s organ and decided to go as light and fluffy as possible: it’s fresh air. On the other extreme, I’ll take “Biscuit,” with a mournful slowed-down male turntable voice announcing “It’s over” over slowed-down trumpets, coming live from David Lynch’s Red Room. There’s a lack of the kind of dated scratching that’s one of (good) trip-hop’s charms: this holds up pretty flawlessly, not just as a nostalgia trip. And so I wonder: some albums are held up as paragons of unimpeachable artistry, some are time capsules. I can dig Portishead, but will I ever “understand”? Eh.
Say hello to Pelle Carlberg, approximately the 515th talented Swedish singer-songwriter to show up in the last 5 minutes. I’m getting a bit sick of it all, honestly, but last year’s In A Nutshell does deserve at least a small degree of attention. At the very least, please listen to “Clever Girls Like Clever Boys More Than Clever Boys Like Clever Girls”, which is very clever indeed. Instead of leading off single-wise with the hysterical, piano-driven “Pamplona,” Carlberg offered up this clearly Belle & Sebastian-oriented piece of romance-puncturing diagnosis: “You see the clever girl looks for a clever boy / To another extent than the clever boy / Will ever look for a mate / Who goes to round-table debates / And runs a little bit late / When she does work for the state.” It makes my girlfriend sad. It’s awesome. The rest of the album isn’t really up to snuff, though I enjoy the self-pitying diagnosis of “Middle Class Kid,” which has the class-guilt thing down. “Pamplona,” as mentioned, is a bit too Ed Harcourt to really work, and the rest of it’s a mixed bag.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.