First, a pallet cleanser.
This is a story that goes from dollar bins to Ashton Kutcher. Let’s start with the dollar bins.
I was with Hannah in the East Village and we were that age where we started having friends who had taken up smoking, but neither of us were bold enough to, yet. It was sunny and I was flipping through dollar bins, passing a Saturday in New York. Dollar bins, however many there are left in the world of dying record stores, are always stacked to a point that you can’t go in with an objective, and so it was probably the serendipity of draggy fingernails and Burakumin’s CD coming in a digipack that made me buy it. I have always been a sucker for sad things and puns: the album was called Early Mourning.
I don’t know anything about Burakumin, the first music project of the now-Los Angeles based singer/songwriter Daniel Ahearn. I can parse from reviews at the time that the group was a duo, but not much except from that. There was something immediately appealing and also off-putting about the group’s sole release, Early Mourning. The album has the feeling of overhearing somebody repeating mantras to themselves in a bathroom. “Keep it together. Keep it together. You’ve got this. You’ve got this.”
Early Mourning in an album that rises out of electronics, cut-up newspaper lyrics, and lots and lots of noise. “The Technology Saturday Guilt/Talking to Courtney” (Several of the songs take this form, with two tracks combined into one) starts as a fairly upbeat if uncertain loiter of a song, those basement keyboards and double-dutching vocals, but descends into a harness of claustrophobic answering machine massages, emerging from this cacophony as a foreboding, slow atonal trudge which finds Ahearn mumbling, “We guarantee you’ll hate this,” before, eventually rising out of that self-made muck, back to the answering machines and those little-brother keyboards. The album’s intent can be summarized on its final track, “Jennifer Ehman.” The song is an instrumental and starts off with the melody of a dreary lullaby, delicate and warm. By its midpoint a creeping, squealing, wailing electric guitar slowly jams its way towards the front of the mix, until it is the only thing a listener can hear. This guitar killing a lullaby. It is far from the most subtle statement. However, especially for a debut, it works.
Like I said, the band was pretty mysterious and had no substantial webpage of its own. When I was interested in finding out more, I ended up e-mailing the head of the band’s label, Scientific Records. S/he told me the band had split up, but that Ahearn had a new project, Ill Lit, that was going to be releasing stuff on San Francisco’s Badman Records.
Before Ill Lit’s first album, WACmusic, was released in 2002, the group created a website and offered at least one track from the album. I remember very clearly sitting in my bedroom late at night in the sweltering heat of a family who refuses to use air conditioning, listening to “Here’s to the Rescue” over and over again. The song traffics in the same kind of noise-integration that Burakumin did, but with a refinement of that sound. Here, Ahearn doesn’t lay all of his cards on the table at once, and instead builds slowly to a startling peak. This song brings together a slapped to death hi-hat, hideous rewound tape loops, the sound of someone winding and then playing a music box (the winding sounds has the eerie skittishness of mice tiptoeing around a kitchen when they think they can get away with it), melodica, guitar and overlapping vocals.
Here, as in Burakumin, lyrics do not seem to want to tell you much. They’re there for their cadence. Word flourish through repetition and rhythm-“you can leave forever/to live forever/better remember/to remember better.” The group is named after a poetry collection by the marvelous Franz Wright, whose poetry never forsakes the sound of words for meaning. Just as Wright’s poetry is done no justice unless it is read, Ill Lit’s lyrics are flattened to a curtain unless you’re hearing them sung.
“Here’s To The Rescue” has one line which rises above this, and it might be the line a listener needs in order to understand where Ahearn’s mind was when he was recording the song:
Here’s to illusions.
Illusions are fun.
I’ve been clean before.
I’ll be clean again.
The rest of the album is less confrontational than “Here’s to the Rescue”, though equally weird. “Welshratz” starts with a conspiracy theorist ranting about Illuminati, and “Options” has probably the most hopeless and alone-sounding cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow you’re likely to hear. WACMusic has all the invitation and inclusiveness of a secret handshake. Yet there are some conesseions made for the sake of the unknowing lisenter. At the time WACMusic was made, Ill Lit were more of a collective than a group with solid membership, but one person who helped to ground the groups oftentimes esoteric songs was female vocalist Melanie Moser, who left the group after the album was made. Her duets with Ahearn on several of the album’s tracks cement those songs, her strong, plaintive voice acting as a guide through entangled lyrics and trampled samples. There is an explination for the album’s title in the corner of its CD case, WACMusic stands for “We Are Country Music.” Moser’s vocals help convince you of this fact.
The biggest transition in Ahearn’s career thusfar occurred in between WACMusic and Ill Lit’s second album, I Need You. The album titles reflect the staggering change in Ahearn’s songwriting and intent; from ambiguity to clairity, from aloofness to sincerity.
On one of the albums first songs, “Spring Chicken,” Ahearn works up the courage to sing a line as personal and void of pretense as, “It’s all I know- how to miss someone.” The song itself feels more streamlined that any of the music on WACMusic. While it begins with a chopped vocal sample similar to those featured in Ahearn’s earlier work, and ends with a chain-link feedback loop not dissimilar to Ahearn’s earlier sound collage-work, everything in between is crisp, direct, and put together with all the precision of writstwatch gears. The drums don’t clamber about, they motor ahead. Even Ahearn’s delivery sounds more pronounced and public.
Likewise, one gets an image of Ahearn’s coming out in the simmering repetion of “Broken Open Fence”
I’m always on the fence
as a last defense
in the argument
I can’t have with you.
Even Ahearn’s acknowledgement of his need to keep distance is becoming of him.
WACMusic was an unidentifiable album. The band needed to tell you, in the album’s title, what they wanted you to think of it. I Need You, in contrast is closer to a genre album, one that does not lose any of its predecessor’s idiosyncrasies, and instead frames them, sticks them on a museum wall, and gives you an blurb of background.
If the progression from WACMusic to I Need You was one of stripping away, the transition from I Need You to Tom Cruise, the band’s thrid and final album was one of adding on. Tom Cruise, the album is as shlocky as a romatic comedy staring Tom Cruise, the actor. Perhaps this album’s key line is in its its opening track, “Across Country,” where Ahearn sings, “I hope you can still hear this, because I love you desperately.” Sure, it’s overwrought, but, as the song’s strings, guitar, piano, drums and bass swell around Ahearn’s voice, you’re likely to be moved to feel the same. Around the time of the album’s release, the groups said in interview they wanted to leave the meaning behind the album’s title ambiguous, but I’ll offer my own take. Like Cruise’s acting at his best, Ill Lit created an album that is unquestionably rehearsed, amplified, and shellacked to a shine and and also graceful, emotionally resonant, and lasting.
On Tom Cruise, Ahearn takes the sounds that were once discordant in his music and pieces them together. Tom Cruise is built around harmony. I do not want a bit of this to sound like a backhanded insult; Tom Cruise is the Ill Lit album I listen to the most, and I know this is because of how unabashedly and emphatically grandiose it is.
Ill Lit were a band who, on a certain level, were trying to quietly construct their own library-cataloged mythology. Each of their albums contained a track written to/for/about a character, Presston Brown, whose voice may or may not serve as an afterward to “The Ghost of Prestonn Brown” on Tom Cruise. There are unifying threads that follow through all of Ahearn’s work: his city-wind voice and the quiet poetry of the words he sings. The battle between his sense of humor (“I’m not a slow lover/I’m not a fast lover/I’m a half-assed lover” he carefully deadpans on “Broken Open Fence”) and self seriousness (“Every hip girl I know these days loves suicide,” he bemoans on “Prestonhood”). Ill Lit were a group who should have inspired a legacy bigger than what I would assume their four-digit sales numbers afforded them. Their biggest break came long after their breakup, when one of the tracks from Tom Cruise was featured somewhat prominently on a quickly-cancled Anne Heche staring sitcom, Men in Trees.
Since the band’s breakup some time around 2008, Ahearn has begun recording music under his own name. What’s interesting about Ahearn’s solo songs is how much they make his previous work feel like an evolutionary arc; from the spiraling gurgle of Burakim to the torn-up-map of WACMusic through the answering machine message of I Need You to the Great Horned Owl that was Tom Cruise. His messages got easier to decipher, his guitar strums became clearer, and, eventually, he’s found a way to make music without much of any manipulation.
There is something that feels right about the place where Ahearn’s songs exist these days. He recently released his first full length solo album, Long Way Home. Its songs are strikingly direct and paired down. They are lovely country songs, as clean as carefully folded linen. In advnaced press of the release, Ahearn has discussed Long Way Home as though it may be the last music he will record. While such a retirement might seem a bit much coming from somebody in their mid-30s, looking at Ahearn’s career ark, he’s covered enormous ground in the past 10 years.
I almost feel dumb posting this here because it is such a small space and I don’t want you stealing my space, but Calvin Johnson and Chain and the Gang (Ian Svenonious’ newish band) are playing at Dead Herring in Brooklyn tomorrow night. The venue is one of the cosiest and nicest in the city. You should go, but not if the line looks too long, in which you should not go so I can go instead.