(Exploding in Sound, 2013)
On WU LYF: I rated the band’s 2011 album Go Tell Fire to the Mountain as the best album I’d heard that year. Don’t believe me? The Internet remembers, people. But I loved that album then. It’s two years later and I’m not sure I’ve listened to it since. I have amazingly fond memories of it, and I might just revisit it at some point, maybe even soon, but I really wonder how it’s aged.
I mention this because Kal Marks, a trio from Boston led by Carl Shane, sort of comes off like an American (and certainly better-monikered) version of WU LYF. There’s some emo in those guitars, but it’s a bluesier, warmer kind. And where WU LYF shouted their rejections and their manifestos to their, ahem, cult, Kal Marks (man, my fingers keep trying to type “Karl” instead of “Kal”) seems much more inviting – they’re more apt to call you over for a beer, light up the chimanea on the porch, and do some serious drinkin’ while reminiscing about the trouble they used to get into. I dunno, maybe Kal Marks is like a grown-up version of WU LYF. They’re certainly more emotionally focused, although still intensely raw.
Either way, it’s just a point of reference. And because I hadn’t listened to Go Tell Fire, it was nice that I associated Life Is Murder, Kal Marks’ fabulous new album, in however an aesthetically vague manner with it. The association made me happy. Maybe it’s the extreme sincerity, the knowing sneeriness, or the unwavering confidence of delivery that elevates it above the average guitar rock record. Maybe it’s the intense personal vibe Shane exudes – but this vibe is leavened with self-deprecation and a wry humor that belies the serious subject matter. Says Shane himself about the title of the record: “[It’s] roughly about dealing with depression and the struggle of keeping a band and my life together.” Heavy. Heavy … pop? I’ll stop. But if that description sounds overbearing in any way, remove it from your head at this very moment. Kal Marks is unrelentingly enjoyable and Life Is Murder is unquestioningly buoyant in its darkness.
An aside, sort of in the run-on style my brother Evan (he of the Dry-Rot review fame with the Rancor fucking) writes in – a take on Carl Shane’s voice and delivery: Imagine Future Islands’ Sam Herring and Dig’s (yeah, Dig, the band, not the movie – remember them???) Scott Hackwith holding Tom Waits’ head underwater, and then absorbing his life force as he expired; then, in a truly unnecessary act of heroism, fused themselves together into one superbeing named Carl Shane’s voice, who, upon gaining individual sentience, transformed into pure energy and entered Carl Shane’s body through his voicebox while he lay unconscious on the laboratory table in the underground hangar. Did you imagine that? Good. Carl Shane’s voice isn’t as good as all that, maybe, but it’s pretty good. And unique.
Now that that’s out of the way, you can at least kind of hear how this might sound in your head. (Or you could stream the songs embedded here. Like adults.) Still, the nine songs that make up Life Is Murder are well above and beyond the sum of their parts, as three dudes with guitars and drums somehow manage to engineer a definitive statement of purpose. The record flows remarkably well, from the shorter, get-in/kick-ass/get-out songs of the first half to the epic masterpieces of the second. And despite opening on somewhat of a downer with “Love Is a Song … Not an Answer,” its pained and stretched opening feedback and keyboard tones setting a somber mood, it bursts uncontrollably in the middle into a heavy vibe that’s both devastated and defiant, before sullenly retreating to the safety of simmering controlled chaos. It’s a hell of a first track, and a gloriously unstable shot across the bow.
“Parking Lot” follows, and may be the easiest song to digest as it falls just short of the three-minute mark, reminding me of early Modest Mouse in its composition and its focus on suburban images to foster its sense of ennui. “Peaking” doesn’t pull any punches either, its sweaty drunkenness shifting to shame in a case of classic lyricism: “Your ass hangning out, your feelings always hurt, your feelings always hurt … Your feelings, fucking feelings.” Then it’s back to defiance, and whether that defiance is justified or not is the whole point – it’s either tragic victory or, well, more shame: “You say it’s your way, and no one can win.”
I could go on – Life Is Murder is a pretty grandiose example of no one winning in the end, especially once the emotional carnage has truly been accounted for. The heartbreaking title track, while again not delving too far into self-pity that Carl Shane can’t come back from it, still reminds us that “Life is murder, we’re forced to fight a war.…” “Out in the Deep” concludes with Shane leaving everything that’s toxic behind, and declaring: “One day the sky will open, and on that day I will be happy.” Whoever it is that’s in the rearview is left to his or her own devices, getting high or whatever, “all the time.”
Although this album is strong front to back (and I submit there’s not a wasted minute), I feel an affinity toward the back end where the band relaxes its grip on churning out rock anthems and stretches its songs out a bit. “All I Want Is a Solid Porch,” instrumental “The Fucking Ocean,” and “Out in the Deep” all have a supreme flair for the dramatic, but they unfold in a way WU LYF could only dream, and, let’s face it, in a way that Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch would undoubtedly approve. And while the songs remain tense, they represent an emotional turning point where Shane can look forward rather than behind. It’s a remarkable turnaround. And I’ve similarly found a path to enlightened enjoyment here, starting from a perspective of “This is nice, but I hope I can come around to it in a deeper way” upon my initial listen to “This is one of the better albums I’ve heard in a while,” and I mean it. Maybe I’ll just listen to Kal Marks when I need that pomp and drama in the form of dynamic catharsis. Yeah, they’re at the top of the list now.
RIYL: Ovlov, WU LYF, Graph, Titus Andronicus, Modest Mouse