Listening to Life Without Buildings for the first time was a thoroughly confusing experience. On first listen, the band’s songs were hard to differentiate from one another and seemed like they were all over the place. I also thought the singer might be mentally challenged and had no clue what she was babbling about. Despite that, I was intrigued, so I made a mental note to revisit the band later.
So Life Without Buildings sat on my iPod, metaphorically gathering dust. Occasionally I would scroll past them and try to remember who they were, then tell myself “oh yeah, the band with the weirdo singer” before I moved on to whatever I was going to listen to. Then one day, I made a Facebook post about how I couldn’t get into Joanna Newsom despite my love of weirdo indie females, which reminded me of another weirdo indie female that I had forgotten about.
That weirdo singer was Sue Tompkins, a painter and sound artist from Glasgow who fronted Life Without Buildings. Tompkins’ distinctive talk-sung vocals were the calling card of the band. She took the ideas from her sound art and applied the to the music, basing songs around repetitive phrasing, random exclamations, and sometimes what appeared to be just plain gibberish. In a typical Life Without Buildings song, she’ll talk-sing non-stop, jabbering and stuttering weird phrases, squealing with childish glee, and in general sounding a little bit like a toddler.
On the second listen to their lone album Any Other City, I was suddenly obsessed. By about the fifth, I wanted to be Sue Tompkins’ best friend. It’s now one of my favorite albums ever and I don’t think I’ve been so obsessed with a band since I got into Sleater-Kinney. But, while I have an easy time explaining why Sleater-Kinney is so great, I find it a bit more difficult to articulate the brilliance of Life Without Buildings.
I think Life Without Buildings is one of the few bands that just has a magical aura about them, and it’s mostly due to Tompkins. While indebted to previous talk-singers like The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and various female post-punkers, she has a vocal style that is unlike anything else in music due to her lyrics. While it would be easy to write off those lyrics as the improvised workings of a crackpot, I’m convinced that there’s a deeper meaning to them. I’m just not sure what yet, and that’s part of the band’s allure: Every song is like a riddle that is impossible to fully crack.
Perhaps the genius of the band fully set in when I listened to their live album Live at the Annandale Hotel. While I’m typically not a fan of live albums, this one is an essential recording of a rare performance from a short-lived band, and features Tompkins’ adorable stage banter and breathless enthusiasm. Most shockingly of all, the live versions of the songs are near carbon copies of the ones on record, proving that there’s a real method behind Tompkins’ madness.
Lost in all this blathering about Tompkins is that the band behind her was extremely good as well. Led by Robert Johnston’s melodic guitar playing, they’re the perfect complement to Tompkins’ ramshackle vocals. Rather than be flashy and show everyone how great they are at playing their instruments, they’re willing to take a backseat and complement Tompkins with strong rhythmic playing.
As mentioned, LWB only made one album, Any Other City. Along with a couple songs off singles, they have 14 songs in total (along with the accompanying live versions from Live at the Annandale Hotel). I’ve been playing the crap out of all of them, treasuring every second that the band recorded and constantly wishing there was more. Unfortunately, the band broke up, partly because Tompkins wanted to go back to pursuing her art.
While their scant amount of material is disappointing, it’s acceptable when the quality of everything is so high. The band mostly had one trick anyways, so it’s hard to know what they would have done after Any Other City. On that album, they use pretty much every variation of that trick perfectly, delivering a set of songs that are more different from each other than they appear on first listen. The first track is “PS Exclusive”, the fastest paced and most rocking song on the album which immediately asserts the genius of Tompkins, who cycles through phrases like “the right stuff” and “this is not advice” until they’re burrowed into your brain.
More than any other band, there are specific little moments in each LWB song that I absolutely love, and it’s easy to collect a list of favorite phrases from the eminently quotable Tompkins. “Let’s Get Out” has some of her best lines, including “LOOK AROUUNDDDDD”, “look back and say that I didn’t!” and “come complete!” The spiky instrumentation makes it possibly the most post-punk track on the album, but Tompkins’ vocals always separate LWB from the post-punk revival bands that would follow them (usually gloomy Joy Divison knockoffs).
While I love all of their songs, “The Leanover” stands out among them and is, in my opinion, one of the best songs of the last decade. It’s wordy even for LWB standards, and I love reading different interpretations of the song (one rumor is that it’s about fellatio; I prefer to think of it as being about the beginnings of a relationship in general). It’s littered with pop culture references (M-B-V would seem to be a nod to My Bloody Valentine, Virginia Plain, etc) and more Tompkins-isms like “I don’t trade”, “contact!”, and “he’s the shaker, baby!” The rest of the band gives it a perfect background with a more laid back, dreamy sound.
There’s numerous other highlights on the album: The mostly spoken-word finale “Sorrow”, the jaggedy pop of “14 Days”, “Juno” with its tempo changes and ringing guitars. I think every song is worth checking out, although the band is obviously an acquired taste: What makes Tompkins such a genius is also what likely drives a lot of people away from the band. Regardless, in a decade that I thought was marked by a lot of boring and unoriginal music, Life Without Buildings stood out as a unique band that had more charisma and personality than any of their peers.