Monday, August 3, 2009

#150. 'You just have to see her, you know that she'll break you in two'

It's all about the build up. I have a feeling that I'm gonna come back to talking about this quite a bit as this thing goes on, but I seriously can't get enough of songs that are basically a big crescendo, slowly adding elements to the mix and ramping of every aspect of the song, the volume, the emotion, until it reaches a breaking point and just explodes. Is "Sometime Around Midnight" the best example of this kind of song? No, but it nicely illustrates just how much a build up can effectively elevate a mediocre band to something that approaches essential listening, if only for one song.

Of course the way the song starts is a bit antithetical to the whole build up argument. The first 20 seconds of the song is an overly dramatic string fanfare that I honestly ignored for the most part when I was listening to the song. Sure it's a pretty little melody, but using it to start the song off never clicked for me. I've recently come around to it, and I'll get to why in a bit, but the first few listens it seemed to fly in the face of what the song wound up being.

After that though, the crescendo begins. The first verse is just setting the scene for the rest of the song to play out in, but it draws you in nonetheless. It's basically a song about the first night you go out after a bad breakup. You go to your favorite bar, and just as you start to get into the swing of the night she walks in. It's obvious that she's taking it better than you are. You exchange pleasantries and play that it's good to see her but that just causes the memories to come back. So when she leaves with someone else, and she makes sure you see her do it, it's a big gut punch that sends you into a frenzy, stumbling out of the bar without all your faculties with the determination to find her even though you know that'll end badly. It's a scene we're all familiar with, either as a third party or as one of the main players, and the song doesn't truck in ambiguity or metaphor. The whole thing is laid out plainly, almost painfully so.

Mikel Jollet's voice is one of the most theoretically awkward things about the song, but also one of its secret weapons. At the start he's most similar to Wire's Colin Newman, an icy, detached baritone that's suited well to his position as an observer within the song. However, as the song progresses and he gets more invested in what's happening the detachment fades away. Even though the song is sung from an outsider's perspective the universal nature of the story being played out makes it all but certain that a lot of the little embellishments come from his own experiences. So it makes sense that by the end of the song he's reduced to a throaty wail, kind of like The Arcade Fire's Win Butler transposed down an octave and ravaged by whiskey and cigarettes. The story isn't his, but he knows it all too well. It's not the most intense vocal performance ever, but the progression in the vocal style is effective mostly because it sounds organic, for both the vocalist and the song.

The vocal progress is almost perfectly matched by the band. The first verse is nothing but a slight little guitar riff and some light cymbal hits. There's still some tension, but the first minute or so is fairly calm all told. The drums enter in earnest at the beginning of the second verse, and the tension builds a bit more. The guitar that was once tentative is a bit more muscular, but still a clean tone. The second guitar is adding a bit more colour to the margins, but it's still a low boil. Once the song moves into the third verse things get more intense. Both guitars are louder in the mix, the drumming is more insistent and the bass is much more present. This slow progress seems to reach its breaking point just after the end of the fourth verse, when the volume gets bumped up a bit more, another layer of guitars gets added to the mix for a little instrumental bridge before the last verse hits. It's at this point that Jollet's vocals are at their most dramatic, but the band still has one more element to add to its attack.

And it's here that the string come back in, reprising the original fanfare that started off the whole thing. This time though they're integrated into the bed that's been building for the last 4 minutes and they add that last little bit of urgency to the song. It's at this point that using them as an introduction to the song makes sense. The song is playing out the worst case scenario of what can happen after you break up with someone, and at the lowest point in the narrative the strings come back, but they've been there before. They were subtly foreshadowing the end of the whole ordeal, because if you've been in this situation or any situation like it, you always have this sinking feeling that the worst case scenario is going to happen. using the strings as an intro makes sore sense the second time you hear the song, if only because now you know what they mean in terms of the whole package.

The real oddity is that this was ever a hit. It's a five-minute song with no chorus from a band that didn't even have a record deal when it first got added to the radio. There's no hook for the common listener and the song is fairly subtle for a medium that rewards bombast over pretty much everything. Yet this was a top 5 modern rock hit early this year, and probably the only one the band will manage.

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