In Brief: An uneven, but mostly satisfying electronic/soul/experimental rock record that is thankfully a lot more appealing than its cover image would have you believe.
About this time last year, my wife and I had the pleasure of catching a high-octane performance from Mute Math, on a tour highlighting their sophomore album, Armistice. I jumped at the chance to get tickets for this show before I had even familiarized myself with the new material, knowing that Mute Math was a sheer dazzling pleasure to witness live in all their fury, even if I had no knowledge of the songs whatsoever. And it was an amazing show, worth its price of admission and then some. As often happens when I purchase tickets solely for the awesomeness of the lead act, I paid no regard to the fact that there was an opener. I don’t even think the opener was finalized yet when I got tickets for the show. But even knowing zip about an opening act, I do try to show up on time and give that act a fair shot at impressing me. This usually means being patient through a set of passable, if not memorable tunes from young hopefuls who mean well, but don’t quite belong on the same stage as the band they’re warming up for. In the case of As Tall as Lions, though, I had no idea that I was in for a band as seasoned as the live show veterans they were touring with, one which utilized a similar blend of dense rhythms, soulful vocals, and electronic underpinnings to create an entrancing – and often highly danceable – wall of sound. They kind of struck me as Mute Math with a trumpet, actually. And also with a penchant for dreamy ambient intros and outros. By the end of a set full of songs I’d never heard a note of before, I was certain that I’d have to check out this group’s studio material and see how well it held up.
It turns out that As Tall as Lions has existed as a band since 2002, longer than Mute Math (who started in ’03 or ’04, I think). They don’t seem to have had the same level of commercial success, but that isn’t for lack of catchiness. It might be due to a higher level of experimentalism, as clearly demonstrated on their latest album You Can’t Take It with You, and to be fair, it might be due to whiplashing moods, with the mellowed-out smooth stuff often crashing into the hectic, dance-your-butt-off stuff with little warning. Not that context matters much when you’re listening to a radio single – but then, even their biggest hooks tend to arrive in the form of songs that are slightly “off” for one reason or another, For me, this is usually part of the fun, but for someone else, who knows – that odd rhythm track or refusal to return to the chorus after a killer bridge might be a dealbreaker. From one song to the next, you never quite know what you’re gonna get with these guys.
Lyrics might actually be the place where this group falls down a little. At times it’s tough to notice, since lead singer Dan Nigro (yes, he’s a white guy, no dumb jokes about the name!) can generally deliver ’em with a good zing, and pretty much everyone in the band sings backup (even the occasional lead for a couple of ’em), so you might miss the words amidst the wash of dazzling vocals. There are just some instances where ATAL’s attempts at wry existential musings come across as a bit heavy-handed. The group is probably at their best when the meanings of their songs are more obscured, as seen in some of the album’s trippier moments. At other times, you can tell someone was reading a favorite philosopher and thought, “Hmmm, I’ve gotta shoehorn that quote into a song somehow.” Factor in the fact that they’re several shades more cynical than Mute Math, and the results can be a bit overbearing at times. Comparisons to the mood of your average Radiohead song wouldn’t be completely out of line – in fact, if you pictured a midpoint between Radiohead and Mute Math in terms of both mood and sound, you’d probably get As Tall as Lions. (I can already see RH fans cherry-picking moments that they’ll claim ATAL nicked from their trend-bucking heroes, but honestly, what experimental indie band these days hasn’t been influenced by Radiohead in some way?)
All told, You Can’t Take It with You is an intriguing record, one which takes some patience to appreciate due to its mood swings, but one which reveals some definite gems right upfront and some worthwhile hidden treasures upon subsequent listens. Despite the record losing a bit of steam toward the end, it’s still one that I whip out often when I can’t quite tell if I’m in the mood for air drumming or late-night blog pontification. Each song seems to have its own distinct personality, actually, so as far as mixed bags go, it’s one of the better examples.
There’s so much brilliance in this first song that it almost doesn’t give the rest of the album a fighting chance. The rhythm is set up with an offbeat series of stomps and claps – my favorite kind of percussion trick, in which it takes a few tries to figure out that it’s the standard 4/4 by way of much subterfuge. (Between this and the fast-paced pounding that leads out of the chorus, this song really oughta be a level in Rock Band. The drum part would be a total pain in the butt!) The guitar and bass parts – seemingly aglow with neon colors – are complex as well, not going for simple rips when they can cascade up and down the scales instead. This is all a lovely, frenetic backdrop to a song about finding refuge amidst the chaos. As Dan’s voice glides through the chorus, he urges his haunted lover: “Breathe in as you spin in circles… so breathe me in, my love.” It’s an exhilirating sentiment for a band that seems to do its fair share of existential moping. Sean Fitzgerald‘s guitar solo and the steady bounce of “Oh, oh, oh” repeated again and again until the song suddenly falls off a cliff at the end are also highlights. It’s hard to be inventive and rock my face off at the same time, so this tune is an instant win for ATAL.
2. Sixes & Sevens
This song is seemingly named for the tricky rhythm strummed by an acoustic guitar, which seems to be 6/8 throughout despite several changes in its emphasis. I haven’t yet figured out where the “sevens” come in. It has a nice thematic lead out of the previous track, opening with everyone singing in unison: “We’ve been run in circles, like rats in a maze.” Dan takes over at the pre-chorus, amping up the paranoia considerably: “I’ve been hung out to dry, strung out on denial, and it’s all just a waste of time.” So yeah, it’s one of their more cynical songs. It’s quite dynamically interesting though, with noticeable variations in the percussion and some spacier bits that get filled in nicely by bass or piano. Just when you think it’s coming around for a big, final chorus, the song subverts expectations by dropping almost everything but Dan’s voice off into the void, as his last few lines play out slowly, quietly, stretched out almost into silence. It leaves you hanging instead of delivering the big finish. This irked me at first, but now I sort of like it.
3. You Can’t Take It with You
The title track is a work of mellowed out smoothness, almost a trip-hop song, but not without its own sense of jadedness. There’s a horn intro that sounds almost like a fugue played by a forghorn, calling out into the murk, warning us of sad times ahead. Bassist Julio Tavarez takes over on lead vocals (not that I could tell it was a different voice at first), singing of a moment when the illusion wears off and you realize that the world, well, kind of sucks. This would be depressing enough to be worthy of mocking if it wasn’t phrased with some amount of competence, and if the music didn’t do such a good job of support the group’s disillusionment and resignation. Some vague concept of an afterlife is looked at as an escape, which is interesting in light of a song that shows up later in the album. The chorus turns the familiar cliche into a statement of hope: “There’s nothing left to lose if you can’t take it with you.” Perhaps it’s better to cast off the illusion and realize that a broken world isn’t all that there is? ATAL isn’t about to get religious on our butts any time soon, as far as I can tell, but they also seem to be coming down pretty hard on hedonism here. Debate the lyrics as you like, but it’s tough to deny the power of this song’s wordless bridge, which is a huge wash of vocal magic sliding across this gut-wrenching chord change several times. Really weird how after that, it just… ends. Trails off into nothingness as the beat suddenly stutters and fizzles out.
4. Go Easy
This was one of the songs that crept up on me slowly when I first heard the band play live, and made me realize they had this talent for moving almost imperceptibly between ambiance and pure danceable joy. Julio’s bass line is the song’s identifying stamp as it fades in, and Dan gets to sing his verse verse against little other than fluttering keyboard sounds, his words evoking a peaceful landscape of falling snow as he describes the place where he and a lover once met. The song mostly mourns a relationship that is apparently over, but within his impassioned cries of “I need you to see the love, see the love, see the love we had!” seem to imply that it had real potential and left its mark on him. What seems to be a light, mid-tempo number really shifts into high gear when another one of Sean’s stratospheric guitar solos comes welling up out of seemingly nowhere, and Cliff Sarcona‘s drums begin to race like the beating of a heart suddenly brought back to life. It’s a gorgeous performance throughout, like some impossible dream becoming visible through the haze, but only for a fleeting moment, disappearing before you have the chance to reach out and fully grasp it.
The hipsters over at Pitchfork Media are soooo smart, they figured out that this song’s title is Spanish for “Go to Sleep”, and used that as one more tool in their arsenal to prove that ATAL was ripping off the almighty Radiohead. Never you mind that this tune sounds nothing like the Radiohead song by that title. It’s actually quite a challenging piece, notable for being extremely long and sparse, but not at all creepy. (When Radiohead goes sparse, they’re almost always trying to give you the willies. Not that this is a bad thing – just illustrating where comparisons between the two bands come to their logical end.) The tempo is slow and jazzy, giving Julio a chance to go into full-on crooner mode – it’s interesting to see what he comes up with when Dan steps back and gives him the reins. The title is apt in that its inherent slowness could tempt you to nod off, so this isn’t advisable listening for a late-night drive. It is quite dramatic, though, in its use of negative space, only letting the drums or most of the instruments play between the beats when the song comes to several of its “mini-crescendoes”, lime gradually cresting a bunch of little hills. The dream starts to take more of a definite shape in the second half, when the vague, wandering lyrics come to a head with the repeating refrain: “Gray sky come falling/But I know that better days will come.” It might not be the album’s deepest song, and since it’s little more than pure ambiance for close to eight minutes, this will be the point where the album comes to a screeching halt for most people and they’re tempted to skip ahead. I’ve made my peace with it. It’s also worth noting that the last two or so minutes are actually a minus track meant to serve as an intro to the next song. That might shift some of the blame away from “Duermete” for being a sleep-inducer, but it still poses problems, knowing that they consciously ordered the tracks in this way. Also, the intro is a musical non-sequitur given what follows it.
6. In Case of Rapture
The shift from the peaceful, dreamlike haze that dominated the previous song and the sudden freight train of percussion that introduces this one is almost jarring. It’s a good way to get you out of your seat as the second act of the show gets fired up, though – the band’s almost manic with the little vocal tics that accompany this intro, and Dan’s positively on fire as he croons a no-holds-barred condemnation of fundamentalism. Yeah, this is the point where you’re likely to be a bit offended if you’re at all religious, since it sounds like he’s out to debunk the Bible and all traditional notions of Heaven and hell. “I saw no fire in your streets”, he cries, “only the stones you’ve thrown at me. Does it make you feel better? You know we’re all just sinners.” I’ve come to understand that his venom is mostly directed at the judgmental behavior exhibited by the most zealous of Christians – those who equate doing good deeds with going to Heaven, and find the most obnoxious ways of making sure their viewpoint gets heard. Dan’s conclusion, as the chorus comes to a fervent boil, is that he’d rather serve no God than the draconian view of God that these people have given him: “Can’t you see it’s better to die on your feet than live down on your knees?” Personally, I think there’s a happy medium, but given the examples he’s probably been shown, I can’t blame him for venting a bit of frustration here. It took me a while to fully admit to liking this one, as I was tempted to do a lot of theological nitpicking rather than just understand how infuriating it can be to deal with zealots like these all the time. It bugged me, too, because it’s one of the most in-your-face rockers on the album. But I’m over that now, and I enjoy this one for what it is.
7. We’s Been Waitin’
Using intentionally bad grammar apparently makes you, like, all soulful and stuff. I’m normally a fan of a rock band doing an intentional send-up of a completely different genre which makes the clear point that it’s just for fun. But for a band that has successfully incorporated some amount of soul influence into their brand of digital age indie rock, it seems strange for them to play up the soul influence so much here that it comes across as self parody. It’s not just in the title – they go for the slow, 6/8 grind, like some sort of really twisted reflection of an Elvis Presley ballad or something, and then Dan sings each verse through a bullhorn. Did I mention the off-key piano? Ya gotta have an off-key piano. It’s all for the lounge cred or something. I’m capping on a song that I actually sorta like here, due to the potshot it takes at the music industry and its impatience when trying to take new talent and strike gold with it. I guess I just started to like the song less when I got over the sneering joke of it and realized that, wow, this is kind of annoying to listen to.
8. Is This Tomorrow?
Taking us back into the modern age is this next song, within its ringing, repetitive piano chords providing a lot of the rhythm, while most of the band follows suit, opting for much simpler riffing and drumming than I’m used to. It’s catchy in the way that much more basic rock bands are – competent but not as creative as most of the other tracks on the album. I sort of feel that a song about the impending apocalypse that is our world, stories of children toting guns, and the general mayhem described here heeds to draw out the inherent chaos in such sentiments rather than hiding it behind a strained, somewhat processed vocal performance and a steady, unassuming beat. For all of its boldness in confronting realities we don’t want to deal with, the band has the audacity to rip off a line from Voltaire (“God’s a comedian playing to an audience afraid to laugh”) and just throw it right into one verse, making a weak rhyme at best and sounding quite jarring in its philosophical tone given the more straightforward lines that surround it. It seems like they set out to write a song based on a comment they liked from a well-known philosopher. I think they could have explored the concept in their own words without quoting the source verbatim (but then, look how many Christian rock bands out there do the same thing with the Bible).
Sean Fitzgerald takes over lead vocals (reminding me somewhat of The New Pornographers‘ Dan Bejar, but in more hushed tones) for this surprisingly quiet song in which the guitar might be the lead instrument, but it’s all subdued and mournful, the gentle tap of a bass drum just barely propelling it along. This makes sense, given that it’s a plea for a sleeping person to wake from their unconscious state – and it becomes a bit of a tear-jerker once it becomes apparent that the person’s actually in a coma. (Inserting the beeps of a heart monitor into a song to make the setting clear is far from a new trick – but it’s effectively devastating here right after Sean quite nearly whispers, “The rhythm of your heart beeps loud, until it stops and robs the room of sound.” Again, the band makes great use of their ability to layer things, creating a bridge that is awash in sympathetic backing vocals and angelic harps. The harps will cause inevitable conclusions to Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” to be drawn, but it’s used in a different context within a song that has a very different vibe to it, so let’s not go there.
10. The Narrows
We spring back into upbeat mode on last time, as cymbals and share drums, handclaps and a muted trumpet lead off one last rhythmic jam, bringing the album to an emotional climax before the final comedown. There actually isn’t too much going on lyrically, as the band largely repeats the same sentiments (“You either live it up or you don’t live it down”, “There’s no time for someone to save you”), further driving home the existential quandary that is most of the album. It’s the way they construct it as a vamp with overlapping vocals that helps make it work, as well as their experimenting with the texture, breaking from the driving rock rhythm here and there to fool around with glittery keyboard sounds and direct the song out into space. It’s retreading ground they’ve already covered, but it’s workable as a second-to-last thought before they close up shop.
11. Lost My Mind
Unfortunately, the band saved the biggest bit of depressing drudgery for last. I don’t mind closing an album on a downer track, but I often find the whole “Leave the lead singer alone in the spotlight with a sole guitar” trick to be an inadvisable way to close out an album. It often feels like an afterthought, an experiment best left for B-sides or for the singer’s solo work. Alright, so the other guys chime in with backing vocals here and there, and Julio’s doing some sort of E-bow thing to compliment Dan’s electric guitar, and there’s keyboardist Rob Parr with little bits of piano here and there… all are present and accounted for. It’s just such a lonely little song that it feels like the work of one man when you don’t listen closely for the details. It’s about memories that slowly slip away, leaving a man on the brink of insanity without his lover around for consolation. The fact that the words “Think I lost my g*dd*mned mind” crop up in the first verse doesn’t do much to win me over. But then there’s no real defined ending to it, as the final words fade away and the record just hangs there on a sustained synth note, which lasts for what seems like several minutes (it’s really just one minute and change, I think), until it finally bleeds into a hidden track, in which a female voice sings what sounds like a comforting lullaby, until you take a closer look at the words and find a similar sense of apathy. This is the brightest spot on an otherwise tedious track, but it’s not fleshed out enough to be a song in its own right, so the end result is the feeling that they tied together fragments of songs and called it a day.
So yeah, As Tall as Lions can be frustratingly inconsistent at times. When they’re hot, they’re really hot, which I’d say makes up for the missteps (and puts them in a separate class from more mainstream rock bands afraid to risk those missteps in the first place). The experimental sound and the overall jaded tone of this You Can’t Take It with You won’t be to everyone’s liking, but especially in the front half, it’s got its charms. They’ll probably be an interesting band to follow in the future because it seems like I’ll never know quite what to expect from song to song. They’ll probably be somewhat maddening to follow for the same reasons, but I’m willing to take the good with the bad there.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Sixes & Sevens $1.50
You Can’t Take It with You $1.50
Go Easy $1.50
In Case of Rapture $1.50
We’s Been Waitin’ $.50
Is This Tomorrow? $.50
The Narrows $1
Lost My Mind $0
Dan Nigro: Lead vocals, guitars
Sean Fitzgerald: Guitars, piano, omnichord, organ, melodica, keyboards, drums, samples
Cliff Sarcona: Drums, percussion
Julio Tavarez: Bass, guitars, keyboards, vocals
Rob Parr: Guitars, piano, keyboards, organ, glockenspiel, vocals
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Originally published on Epinions.com.