I’m, by nature, an awkward person. Not “tripping over my shoes at a funeral” awkward or “inappropriately mumbling weird kinky habits on line at the supermarket” awkward, but certainly, “accidentally cutting someone off in conversation and feeling bad about it, stopping, and then realizing the other person probably didn’t care and but now neither of you are talking” awkward or “trying to put on my coat and my bag at the same time and having half the stuff fall out” awkard. Mostly, it’s not painful or embarrassing, it’s just a part of life. I’ve pretty much avoided retail jobs where I have to do more than ring up merchandise and put that merchandise in a bag, and say “next customer,” because of that exact social malady; I hate lying to people, am not great at eye contact or feigning interest, and while I do like talking to strangers, I like to get some say in which strangers I talk to. Funny then, that this year, 4 days a week, I’m working one of the pushiest, least behind the scenes retails jobs I could have chosen. Point is, today was an akward day. Point is, there are some anthems for days like this.
The Dismemberment Plan were very, very good at making songs awkward. With one of the most figitty but tightly controlled rhythm sections in rock and, and a lyricist as self conscious and self effacing as Travis Morssion, either the music or the lyrics might make you hiccup just a little bit. The thing about it is, with this band, there’s a pride in the nervous, sloppysocial, impolite, often angry songs. Dismemberment Plan songs don’t trip into 7/4 time because of shoelaces that got tied together while they were talking to a cute girl, they give it a running start and flail with every muscle they’ve got. They know there is no emerging unscathed, so they go for the broken ligaments, so at least they’ll have some stories to tell at the end of the race.
Ill Lit were one of my favorite bands, even though each of their albums featured a radically different lineup, genre classification, and motivation. Their first album, WACmusic (which stands for We Are Country Music), is both their most experimental and also most emotionally touching. The album is a mix of country music conventions with elements of early electronica, noise feedback, and sampling. If it sounds pretentious, it is not. If it sounds precarious, it often is. Nowhere is this more evident than on one of that albums’ highlights “Prestonhood.” The song begins with a two minute minute sound collage, before the guitar starts plucking out a sad ballad, and claustrophobic, unidentifiable percussion enters the mix. The song, like many on the album, is a duet, but it a duet that feels tense, as if the two vocalists didn’t divide up parts, and decided to wing it. The two voices step on eachother toes constantly, interrupting one another (at an especially tense line to boot: “every hip girl I know these days likes suicide”), not harmonizing where you’d think they would, and, in the last part of the song, being layered through a cheap tinny tape recorded that is being rewound and sped up and played and warped and then paused, even as the two voices are still singing. It’s a tough song; it’s ambling place and beautiful guitar part are beautiful, hopeful subway buskers, the voices and what they sing are the leaking homeless man at the other end of the car.
The most painful kind of akward song is the one which turns out to be entirely unintentional on the band’s part. My favorite Husker Du album is their major label Debut, Candy Apple Grey, but even for an album I will defend, I’ll admit that “No Promise Have I Made” is just difficult to listen to. Even the grammar of the title suggests stiltedness and a slipping feeling. Grant Hart, usually the less melodically enclined of the bands’ two songwriters, tries to fit his hoarse throat through the strings of grand piano, but it’s the equivalent of putting freshly cut flowers in a vase of Pabst. From the absolutely unnesecary cymbal flourishes to the overwrought lyrics, this song tries to strangle you with its sentiment. But it doesn’t work, because Husker Du were one of the loudest, most forceful punk bands to gain any sort of popularity during the 80s, and so “No Promises…” just sounds soft. And flat. So things are bad so far, but around the 1:49 mark, you’ll want to push stop and delete the song from your harddrive. At that moment, Hart’s goes from his emoting vocals to a full on scream as a violin rains down on your ears. The song goes through one more oblique verse that has a lot of words that rhyme with different colors, before Hart starts screaming again. This time it lasts even longer. I’ve listened to the song probably 3 times in my life, and i’ve listened to the rest of that album probably 50 or so times. One of those 3 was when I was writing about it right now. Make it through once, then feel free to never listen again.