Thursday, October 22, 2009

#74. 'I can guide a missile by satellite'

Flobots "Handlebars"

If you look at them on a purely theoretical level, there should be nothing wrong with Flobots. Just take a look at the components their sound is based on: mariachi horns and strings a la Devotchka and Calexico, live guitars and drums to round out the sound, two decent rappers who wear their leftist politics on their sleeves and good-to-great sense of composition and arrangement. Sounds like the sort of band I could fully get behind, and when their introductory burst is something as good as "Handlebars" it would be hard to imagine a situation where that wouldn't be the case. Unfortunately, and I say this having listened to their major label debut Fight With Tools a few times, the reality is that they boil down to a great single and nothing more. The sound is just the right mix of soulful mexican influences and driving alternative rock, but the production is that shitty major label 'louder is better' style that kills any sort of dynamic range the songs might have. The two rappers aren't the best out there but they're passionate enough to counteract that ...however within a few minutes of the start of the album they've rhymed 'healthcare' with 'Leonard Pelletier' (they do make up for it later with the awesome non-sequitur 'This is outta hand like Buster Bluth'. Yes you can win me over with references to the best sitcom that will ever grace my TV, I'm easy that way) It's a cases of the band's heart being in the right place but nothing else quite lining up properly with that.

Except for "Handlebars" that is. I can't think of many singles this decade that took a deeply flawed group and elevated them to such a high level of greatness without radically changing anything about their sound. All the elements of the rest of Fight With Tools' songs, both the good and the bad, are still on display within "anlebars", but for 3 and a half minutes they actually click perfectly. The mariachi touches are a full part of the song, never coming off as an afterthought, the lyrics are earnest but not ham-fisted, the song flows perfectly through a few different moods and the horrible, horrible production job only really mars the last verse and chorus when the guitars come to the fore. It's the best possible combination of everything that makes the band such a frustrating prospect, amplifying their theoretical greatness over their real-life mediocrity for a little while to create one of the best left-field hits of the last few years.

It took a while for it to grow on me, to be completely honest I dismissed it as a 311 rip-off at first, but a few listens managed to put me on its side pretty fervently. It's another example of how much a well paced build can help a song, but it's also a case of knowing when to use certain elements to their best effect. The trumpets that pepper the rest of the cuts on Fight With Tools are relegated to a stately little solo section before the song goes into overdrive, the violins are subtly layered under the chorus and otherwise provide that resonant introductory plucked string figure and the more alt-rocky elements don't get played until the very end of the song making it seem that much more grandiose. More importantly, the way the song flows through all those sections is a lot more logical than its album-mates. The individual sections are woven together with a sense of purpose rather than inevitability if that makes sense; it feels like the song escalates because it's necessary not because it fits the song into a certain niche. Not groundbreaking by any stretch, but effective nonetheless.

Even more effective are the lyrics. They still occupy the sort of college liberal field that the whole of Fight operates in, where the issues are brought up but not deepened substantially to qualify as anything more than navel gazing, but they're also oblique enough to be a bit less cringeworthy. It's also more about personal accomplishment than any larger political functions, making it much more universal than the democratic screeds Flobots seem to prefer. Really, other than the last verse, which while not the most potent critique of the last US administration certainly has a leg up on, say, "When the President Talks to God," the song isn't political at all, instead using a series of rather common accomplishments to drive home the cliched theme that you can do anything you want. I think what makes it work is that by letting the last verse, where the list of accomplishments gets more vengeful, rub against accomplishments as mundane as riding a bike without handlebars or keeping time without a metronome it trivializes the insane declarations like 'I can ake anyone go to prison/just because I don't like 'em' by subtly putting them on the same level. It's a much more clever way of drawing parallels between the then-current regime and a bunch of kids wide-eyed at the simple things they can do than I'd think possible from a band who, and I do hate to bring this up again but it really is fucking egregious, rhymed 'healthcare' and 'Leonard Pelletier' at one point.

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