Thrice – Beggars: Got Any Change?

2009_Thrice_BeggarsArtist: Thrice
Album: Major/Minor
Year: 2011
Grade: C+

In Brief: It’s part consolidation of their past sounds and part exploration of something new. And it’s bound to baffle anyone who thought they had Thrice nailed down.

Thrice is one of those bands that amuses me by frustrating almost everyone else. Once labeled a hardcore rock band, with most folks who actually attempt to classify this sort of thing retreating to “post-hardcore” in more recent years for lack of a better descriptor, they’re the kind of group that seems restless enough to never want to record the same album twice. So that’s what they’re known as – a band who used to rock hard, who used to scream, who used to do whatever. They’re “post-” whatever they were on the previous album, to some extent. It’s a description that massively oversimplifies the music that they make, but it’s true to some extent that if you become a fan with one album, there are no guarantees that you’ll respond positively to the next one. The almost relentless, but tightly crafted, shouting and thrashing of The Artist in the Ambulance was apparently the high watermark when I first jumped on board with the more experimental Vheissu, which vacillated between a more melodic approach to hard rock and a few unapologetically “ambient tunes”. Then the group completely isolated the different elements that influenced their sound for the four-disc Alchemy Index set, forcing Fire and Water, Air and Earth to exist untouched by one another, which seemed pedantic at first, but turned out to positively thrill me once I saw the whole picture. One man’s trash is truly another man’s treasure when it comes to these guys, and it’s probably due to the fact that my tastes are all over the map to begin with that I’ve actually gleaned some enjoyment from nearly everything I’ve heard Thrice attempt thus far.

I rightly predicted, at the conclusion of The Alchemy Index, that Thrice’s next disc would be an attempt to pull together the things they’d learned from their isolated genre experiments. What I didn’t account for was a relatively brief and uncomplicated disc appearing so soon (about a year and a half) after Alchemy‘s second installment. 24 tracks from most bands should be enough to tide a fan over for a good three or four years, so clearly these guys have been quite active in the studio. And apparently the meticulous approach that they took on that project, and Vheissu before it, was something that they didn’t want to repeat, so they took the more organic route this time, simply trying to write good songs in whatever genre the song dictated, and banging them out in the studio, all four dudes together in a room, no recording separate parts and stitching it all together on a laptop (or creating most of it on a laptop, as seemed to be the case with the “Water” disc), no dragging it out. Just capturing the moment, like they did in the good old days. That’s basically what Beggars is – a relatively quick shot in the arm, a presentation of ideas that are meant to work individually and not need to be part of some big, overarching concept to be enjoyable. I like big, overarching concepts, but there’s something to be said for immediacy, too, so I can roll with it. Good songs are good songs in any context, right? Even if there are only 10 of ’em?

For the most part, I think Thrice accomplished what they set out to with Beggars. Listeners who missed the rock factor will probably bounce back with this one, to some degree, as there’s a steady, guitar-driven groove propelling most of its tracks. At the same time, it’s not a particularly “heavy” record. There’s more breathing room here, more space for the elements to appear uncluttered, even if there are distorted guitars and thick bass lines and ragged vocals and such. It’s raw, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for the more slow-burning, ambient, keyboard-driven stuff. But when you listen to this record, it’ll be pretty easy to tell how they’ll recreate it live, as opposed to some of the more synthesized moments from Alchemy. No two songs here are identical in their approach, which is a blessing and a curse – you won’t get confused about which track is which and the short tracklisting isn’t likely to outlast your attention span, but the mixed bag of ideas can feel like a bit of whiplash coming on the heels of a collection where similar musical pieces were grouped together. if I sound like I’m hedging, it’s because I like this album, but I always have a hard time truly falling in love with an album when I know the group’s been more ambitious (and succeeded at it) in the past.

Two thing that hasn’t changed with Thrice are their literate lyrics and their love of texture. At times, these elements seem more important to the band than catchy melodies or easy interpretation – they’ve been accused of being pretentious and I’ve even heard folks claim that they’re compositional amateurs for always bringing the melody line back around to the same place or whatever. But it’s the details that grab me in the midst of songs that might otherwise seem more primal and repetitive – the way the tone of a distorted guitar reverberates within the recording space, the way an electronic keyboard and a simple drum pattern lock into each other, the varnish that seems to coat Dustin Kensrue‘s voice, etc. Combine that with lyrical musings that are often thought-provoking, and sometimes direct and challenging about something you know to be true but have a hard time putting into practice, and I think that’s enough to inspire loyalty among fans who are willing to listen for the details. That’s what makes Beggars a rewarding listen even if it didn’t quite “wow” me the first few times through.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. All the World Is Mad
The immediate attack of the Breckenridge brothers – Riley Breckenridge‘s urgent drum rolls and Eddie Breckenridge‘s fat bass line lurching straight at you – gets the album off to one hell of a great start. Teppei Teranishi adds a good dose of fuzz to the song with his delightfully rugged lead guitar work, and there’s a lot to enjoy in the messy, yet systematic way that this song unfolds. The constant count of “1, 2, 3” bumped out on the bass interlocks nicely with a shift to an only slightly more relaxed pattern of twos for the chorus – the way the rhythm is accented changes even though the actual time signature and tempo do not. Beyond that overly technical observation, I’m just blown away by the sheer energy of it – it’s not hard like Fire, but much more rough-hwen, making Dustin Kensrue’s bleak observations that much more poignant. He’s definitely hung up on the fact that the human race is too depraved to even realize how depraved we are, commenting, “Of all our iniquities, ignorance may be the worst.” It’s pretty harsh, but unlike some bands whose singers write from a Christian perspective, he’s not afraid to make this a “we” statement, so it doesn’t just sound like a dude pointing his finger at the rest of the world and pretending to be above it all. Understanding that we’re all in this muck together (and thanks to all of Teppei’s grumbling and squealing, it’s rather delicious muck) is crucial to the theme of the album.

2. The Weight
Picking up after the first track with almost the same rhythm and tempo, but backing off a bit on the intensity to give the guitars a little more of a thin, scratchy feel and the drums more of a groove-oriented sound, the band launches into a five-minute opus that sounds quite simple, built almost entirely around a two-chord riff that loops again and again with only slight variance as they build toward the chorus. This is actually a love song, believe it or not, but since you probably can’t get all lovey-dovey to the muddy soundscape and Dustin’s near-screaming fervor, it’s not the kind of song you’d use to kindle chemistry. Rather, it’s about the kind of love that hangs on when it’s been dragged through the mud, the kind that people promise when they put on wedding rings but seem to rarely live out. Dustin writes off supposed Romeos who know how to make big promises and wrap women around their fingers, only to vanish when better opportunities come along, nothing that “A ring don’t mean nothing if you can’t haul the weight” and vowing, “I won’t leave you hanging on, no I won’t be that someone”. The concepts of putting in the hard labor to keep a marriage alive and loving even when you don’t feel like it aren’t exactly sexy things to discuss in a song, but the way Dustin bellows that chorus, it’s easy to believe that he means every word he’s written. It’s a tough love song. I like those.

3. Circles
The album backs off a bit here for more of a moody, keyboard-driven track – picture the icy coolness of Water intermingling with the experimental textures of Air, and you’ll have sort of an idea of where this is going, just without the electronic stuff. It’s a song about wandering bilndly, and the music does quite a bit of that, as Riley intentionally knocks a corner off of the rhythm every now and then, even lapsing from 3/4 into 4/4 a few times as the song unfolds. It’s not all subtle groove and no fire, though – the climax brings Dustin to the top of his lungs in more of a melodic way while Teppei lets out a mournful solo that ascends into the night and seems to ask whether anyone out there is really listening. I like that it’s an experimental piece, but it knows where it’s going to end up, making the instrumental coda a payoff which communicates the disorientedfeeling that the lyrics could only dance around.

4. Doublespeak
Here’s a more straightforward rocker, except that it’s led by piano? If you came for rapid-fire riffing and blistering screams, then this is probably your idea of how Thrice does ballads, but I think there’s something to be said for the ability to express anger in more of organic setting. Once again, it’s groove heavy, using Teppei’s guitar more for abrasive texture until it really kicks in and takes the lead during the chorus. The piano and drums dominate the verses, in which Dustin laments politicians or advertisements or whatever mind-numbing force you want to name slowly pulling the wool over his eyes, convincing him to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid, teaching him to speak the same meaningless propganda that he used to rebel against. His comment about ignorance earlier in the album is supplemented nicely by this painful couplet that leads into the chorus: “I don’t want to know who really pulls the strings, just as long as it’s not you or me”. In other words, turn a blind eye to the evils that you would have once been fired up enough to do something about, and hope that they’ll just *POOF* disappear. Thematically, it’s similar to “Digital Sea”, serving as a cautionary tale of how the pursuit of comfort over principle can be a man’s undoing.

5. In Exile
This would be the one song that I can’t really get into (it won the vote when the band asked their Facebook fans which song should be made into a music video, which further proves that I’m weird for a Thrice fan). There’s nothing about it that I specifically dislike – maybe I’m slightly thrown off by Riley’s drums and the way Dustin works with and against them to confuse me about where the downbeat is, but that’s really minor. It’s the one song on the album that just doesn’t quite seem to have the same oomph to it – I ghuess I’m more easily drawn to the fast, intense stuff, and the quiet, slow-buildup-to-a-big-finish stuff than I am to mid-tempo tracks like this one. The lyrics are sort of your typical musing about a life spent constantly moving from place to place, not feeling like anywhere is home, and looking forward to some sort of permanence either in this life or in the next, depending on your interpreation. I suppose there is some intensity near the end when Teppei’s guitar really starts to soar and cast a haze over the landscape, but that’s good icing on a so-so cake.

6. At the Last
The album’s second half (already?) kicks in hard, with Teppei’s nervous, jumpy riffing and a near-obstacle course of drums and bass. Dustin wastes no time getting down to brass tacks here as he bluntly observes that he’s guilty of noticing the poor and oppressed, and not really giving a damn. Much like the shaky, self-justifying attitude that he took on in “Doublespeak”, he tries to talk himself into believing he’s a good guy due to the overly bad things he’s never done – he’s not a theif or a murdered, etc. But he can’t escape the fear that he’ll reach the end of his life and find out it was all selfish, which leads to an angry, sort of sung, sort of shouted chorus where he spits, “Death is cast on all I’ve done”. it’s a hard-hitting lyric that in some ways takes me over a decade back in time to Bono‘s similar musing about whether he’s let privilege get the best of him in U2‘s song “Gone”, which of course is worlds apart from Thrice musically. A lot of “rock stars”, or at least the more self-aware ones, probably come across this guilty feeling from time to time. The question they’re posing to themselves is a question I have asked myself, too, despite not being anywhere near “rich” according to this society’s classification: Is it enough to be neutral? Do I have a resonsibility to help care for those who can’t care for themselves? While I’m a bit iffy about the musical delivery on this one due to how suddenly the sharp peaks and quiet valleys appear, it’s still a hell of a ride, and a good way to make me think twice about the things I value most.

7. Wood and Wire
I’m really enjoying the experimental keyboard stuff on this album, even if this track seems to have come from another dimension compared to the jagged rockers surrounding it. With vibey electric keyboards and another contemplative groove, Dustin explores the thoughts of a man locked down on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, borrowing an idea from the film Dead Man Walking. I love the way that the guitars get warped in this one, as if someone suddenly threw a switch and sent a jolt of electricity through the waveform. (Alright, so maybe they did tweak the natural sound of the instrument with electronics a bit on this one.) It’s fitting for a man facing his final march to the electric chair, and Dustin shows no contempt toward his executors as he says, “Throw the switch on; I know you ain’t got a choice”, and uses his last words to express how he looks forward to freedom and holds no bitterness about the final wasted years of his life. It’s musically subtle, but powerful stuff if you really pay attention. Compare it to “The Earth Will Shake”. Maybe he’s the one guy who got the escape those other prisoners were dreaming of.

8. Talking Through Glass/We Move Like Swingsets
The most intense track on the record strikes with little warning, as crashing drums almost immediatly give way to Dustin’s militant shouting, and it becomes apparent that he’s had it up to here witho a person who isn’t listening. It’s a slightly more literary take on the usual frustration of feeling like you’re talking to a wall, I guess. It actually strikes me as slightly humorous that all of this banging and thrashing is really just a different musical skin for what turns out to be one of those “I’m fed up and want to leave you, but can’t bring myself to do it” sort of songs. Just reading the lyrics, you’d expect something more tender, more bittersweet. But I’m not complaining, and I doubt fans of Thrice’s early work will complain, either. I’m a bit baffled by the lengthy coda, in which the entire thing melts into quiet acoustic guitar chords and a hint of background ambience, with Dustin whispering “We move like swingsets” so quietly that it barely registers.It’s intriguing, but a bit of a buzzkill.

9. The Great Exchange
The final “mellow” track on the album almost sounds like it could be a missing seventh track from the Water disc. Again, the band has dressed it up in more organic clothing, so it’s not a dead ringer for that set of recordings, but the nautical theme certainly tells us Dustin’s got a recurring fascination with ships and the ocean. Over an intricate bed of light-fotted drums and the electric guitar plucking out an arpeggio, Dustin tells the tale of a doomed ship, brought down by the mutiny of its own crew against the captain. The weird thing is that the captain, normally the guy who is obligated to go down with the ship, actually survives and pulls him out of the murky depths, leading Dustin to conclude, “Your body is a bridge across an endless sea”. I probably don’t need to explain the metaphor there.

10. Beggars

Who would have thought that after their days of being clearly defined as a “hardcore” band, and even after still flirting with that style despite branching out to explore a wider array of sounds, that Dustin’s roughest vocals would appear not on an intense screamo song, but on this slow, bluesy dirge instead? Sure, he sounds calm enough when he croons the opening lines, but just listen to the way that the man comes unglued as he asks more and more questions of us, tearing down all of the accomplishments and intelligence and financial success that we use to define our status, defying us to answer questions about whether we can control the sun and the sea and actually act according the godlike status that the most “successful among us claim to have”. It’s not for the faint of heart, because his ragged voes goes horribly, intentionally off-key. Some might say he’s singing the blues, but to me it sounds more like the reds. “If there’s one thing I know in this life,” he ultimately concludes, “We are beggars all”. This of course brings the album right back around to where it started, knocking egos down more than a few pegs and establishing that humans all exist on a level, miserable playing field. That would be horribly depressing if not for the silver lining calmly expressed near the end of the song. “Can you see now that everything’s grace after all?” That’s gonna fly in the face of anyone who feels like they worked hard for the quality of life they’ve got, but there it is – we can’t control everything life throws at us. Anything we have and any good we can do is the result of grace. Unmerited favor. And what do we do with that? They could offer an easy answer, or Teppei could just shred into a similarly tortured guitar solo. I prefer that they end with the latter. I can connect the dots on my own.

As I’ve hinted throughout my review, it’s hard not to notice the Christian themes in Dustin’s writing, and those themes are going to be subjects of debate between religious fans and non-religious ones (Thrice seems to have a good deal of both). I think Dustin walks that line reasonably well as a songwriter – allowing his worldview to color the things he writes about because he simply can’t help but express what matters to him, and yet at the same time, there isn’t a set agenda dictating that a song is supposed to convince people of a particular belief he holds. It’s reasonably open-ended, and I’ve seen valid interpretations of many of these songs that work without having to bring God into the picture (and also faith-based interpretations that are sometimes way off-base). it’s a skill that I wish more Christian bands could learn, but then if they did, they’d probably take the Thrice approach and not define themselves as Christian bands. (Which I’d be totally OK with.) Beggars isn’t a perfect example because there are times where Dustin can get a bit didactic, but with a band this musically inventive behind him, that becomes only a minor nitpick. They’re not trying to be all things to all people, but they’ve managed to be a lot of things to a lot of people while being true to the sound and message they want to convey, and I admire them for that even if I think they’ve done stronger work in the past.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
All the World Is Mad $2
The Weight $1.50
Circles $1.50
Doublespeak $1
In Exile $.50
At the Last $1
Wood and Wire $1.50
Talking Through Glass/We Move Like Swingsets $1
The Great Exchange $1.50
Beggars $1
TOTAL: $12.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Dustin Kensrue: Lead vocals, guitar
Teppei Teranishi: Lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Eddie Breckenridge: Bass, backing vocals
Riley Breckenridge: Drums, percussion

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

WEBSITES:
http://www.thrice.net/
http://www.myspace.com/thrice

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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One thought on “Thrice – Beggars: Got Any Change?

  1. Pingback: Thrice – To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere: I guess that explains Waldo, Carmen Sandiego, and the beef. | murlough23

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