Single-Song Obsessions: Life Without Buildings — “The Leanover”

Photo by Alan Dimmick
Photo by Alan Dimmick

One of the biggest things I’m always looking for is art that actually stays with you after you read it, look at it, or listen to it. As an English major, my favorite stories and poems that I read were always the rare gems that had some degree of ambiguity that made me keep thinking about them over and over, even days after I studied them. In music, that feeling is even more rare: most bands write lyrics that are either too on-the-nose with their intent or are completely nonsensical and stupid.

I’ve already written too much about how I’m obsessed with Life Without Buildings. I imagine when I share the link to this post on Facebook, most people will glance over it and say “oh my god he’s seriously going on about that stupid Life Without Buildings band again.” But a huge part of why I’m totally fixated with this band is that they pulled off the whole ambiguous, thought-provoking art thing better than any band I’ve heard, and they were able to do it in with a style that was accessible and endearing. And it’s worth singling out “The Leanover” because, even on the basically perfect Any Other City album, it’s a song that rises above the rest, perfecting the band’s one-of-a-kind aesthetic and achieving a sort of rarefied air that makes you wonder how such a song could even be thought of and conceived by humans.

Any discussion about Life Without Buildings has to begin with their singer, Sue Tompkins. Her sound-artist, high-pitched talk-singing style is on every song of theirs, but “The Leanover” is her most virtuosic performance. Starting the song a capella, she whispers “If I lose ya” repeatedly (many pointed out that during the Iraq war that this sounded like “In Fallujah” due to her accent), and for the next five-and-a-half minutes she manically cycles through various phrases, creating a sound collage of personal memories, pop culture references (“M-B-V!”), and seemingly randomly shouted lines and observations.

If you just look at the lyrics of “The Leanover” independent of the music, you’ll probably be like “what the hell is this?” (Listening to the song, I suppose you might think the same thing.) But when combined with Robert Johnston’s beautiful guitar-work and the strong rhythm section, somehow it all seems to come together — to an extent. The actual “meaning” of the song remains largely impenetrable, but in a way where I think I can still figure it out if I listen one more time. At least that was my mindset early on after I discovered the song, but then I realized that knowing exactly what it meant would ruin the charms that make it so endlessly replayable to begin with.

The lyrics understandably get singled out by writers, but the extra facet of this song’s greatness is simply in its delivery. In the post-Radiohead era, I sometimes feel like the “hip” thing to be in indie these days is dour and gloomy, singing in an oppressively sad tone about some serious topic or another. I’m already a boring person — I don’t need to compound that by listening to boring music. Contrast that to “The Leanover”, which is pure joy. Even without really understanding the lyrics, Tompkins’ sheer exuberance and enthusiasm make the song worth listening to. As the song’s sound grows, especially in the final couple of minutes, I dare you not to smile. The fact that those qualities come along with such a thought-provoking and interesting lyrical style is just icing on the cake.

A lot of the best qualities of “The Leanover” come out even more on the live version, which appears on the band’s Live at the Annandale Hotel album. Hearing Tompkins perform this song in a live setting is incredible, as she somehow has enough breath to get through all of its words and is able to stay on just the right beat. The studio version has a spontaneous sort of sound to begin with, which the live performance accentuates. It’s obviously worth seeking out if you’re half as into this band as I am.

As of right now, “The Leanover” is probably my favorite song. “Obsession” doesn’t really go far enough — I want to live inside of this song. If I was stranded on a desert island with just “The Leanover”, I could probably be okay, because it’s one of the few songs I listen to that makes my day better whenever I hear it.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #2 – Sleater-Kinney – “The Woods”

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On One Beat, Sleater-Kinney showed signs of expanding their sound from their previous basic punk framework to something that could almost fill an arena. But nothing (and I mean nothing) could have prepared anyone for what would come on The Woods. After six albums and over ten years as a band, Sleater-Kinney completely reinvented themselves with a loud, gigantic rock album that sounds like the band’s take on Led Zeppelin and The Stooges. It was a massive risk, but one that paid off tremendously: The Woods is, for my money, the best rock album of the last 15 years or so.  In fact, it’s so ambitious, aggressive, and just plain awesome that it makes other attempts at rock albums from this time period look inconsequential and stupid.

The first thing most people note about The Woods is that it is very loud. Usually it comes to their attention after they start playing the raucous opener “The Fox” and nearly have their ear drums destroyed before they check to see if their speakers are broken.  The band hired Dave Fridmann, who had previously produced albums for The Flaming Lips and others, and he opted for the controversial production on The Woods that pushes every sound into the red. On the WTF With Marc Maron podcast, singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein said that Fridmann wanted the listener to think something was wrong with their speakers at least once on every song, and he pretty much pulls that off by producing what might be the loudest album in the history of music this side of Raw Power.

The loudness isn’t just a gimmick though, as it helps bring Brownstein’s classic rock riffing and Janet Weiss’ drumming to unforeseen heights. Singer Corin Tucker also pushes her always abrasive voice further than it’s ever gone before, launching it to Robert Plant levels but still sounding like no one else in music. The distorted sound on The Woods functions as both an homage to and a subversion of 1970s cock rock.

Beyond the noise and distortion, what’s really striking about The Woods is how the band uses completely different song structures than they did in the past. Their previous albums had few songs more than 3 minutes long, but The Woods revels in its glorious excess, with guitar solos and breakdowns sending songs down unpredictable paths. “What’s Mine is Yours” starts out normally enough but gives way to a psychedelic section where Tucker chants against Brownstein’s squealing guitar and the thudding drums. But no song represents the new Sleater-Kinney more than “Let’s Call it Love”, an 11 minute (!) song about sex that is unabashedly dirty and features a nearly six minute guitar solo that careens all over the place. It transitions into another experiment, the improvised jam “Night Light” that closes the album (and the band’s career).

The album has a more accessible middle section that is expertly paced, beginning with the suicide fable “Jumpers” that combines poignant lyrics with the rest of the album’s guitar hero swagger. Things quiet down with the Brownstein-sung “Modern Girl” with its sly, satirical lyrics. On “Entertain” the band mocks the backwards-looking indie rock scene with some of their most cutting lyrics: “you can drown in mediocrity, it feels sublime” Brownstein sings on the bridge. It’s a cocky song, but with this album the band had earned the right to look down on others.

The new sound seems like it freed Sleater-Kinney from the conventions they were stuck in before, and it leads to maybe the most energized, vital music of their career.  Seven years later, The Woods still sounds more fresh and relevant than any rock album of today. I think it’s close to being unparalleled in its combination of craziness, ambition, and just pure rockage — The Woods is a colossal, badass hurricane of an album that leaves a sea of lame indie-rock dopes trembling in its wake.

It also ended up being the ultimate swan song for the band, as they went on indefinite hiatus after touring for the album. In retrospect it makes sense, given the go for broke mentality that The Woods exudes, and perhaps the band feeling burned out from music (and possibly each other) is what led to this album reaching such insane heights. The Woods caps off what I think is one of the greatest runs by a band in rock music history, and it does so with an incredibly loud bang.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #4 – Sleater-Kinney – “One Beat”

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No event shaped American life in the last decade like 9/11. I still vividly remember hearing about it when I was a sixth grader, and I also remember that awkward period after 9/11 where nobody knew exactly what was going to happen in America. For artists, 9/11 created a separate conundrum: what could be said about such an unthinkable tragedy? Most understandably opted to avoid the whole mess rather than risk alienating fans or being seen as making light of the event.

Not Sleater-Kinney. Following their 2000 album All Hands on the Bad One, banshee-voiced singer Corin Tucker gave birth to her first child. After a pair of more introspective albums, that event and 9/11 shape the music on One Beat, which effortlessly combines the political and the personal while also rocking to the stratosphere with a thrilling vitality.

Politics had always been part of Sleater-Kinney’s MO, but on One Beat they really come to the forefront. That resulted in some expected criticism of the band, but it’s also what makes One Beat feel so essential. Recorded in March and released in August 2002, the band takes prophetic shots at the Bush administration before it became a cliche for bands to do so. The band also plays as a unit more than they ever had before, with Carrie Brownstein providing monster riffs and more vocals while Janet Weiss continues to wail on her drums. Tucker’s voice, always the breaking point when it comes to people trying to get into S-K, is as unhinged and emotional as ever.

“Far Away” is one of the defining songs on One Beat, combining a thunderous guitar riff with Tucker’s first-hand account of seeing 9/11 on TV while she’s nursing her baby. That’s followed by the first overtly political statement of the album: “don’t breathe the air today/don’t speak of why you’re afraid,” presenting Sleater-Kinney as the band that would speak up in the awkward silence that was post 9/11 life. Later, they take their first pointed shot at Bush: “the president hides while working men rush in and give their lives.”

“Step Aside” takes a different approach, putting the polemics into a danceable song with call and response vocals. “Why don’t you shake a tail for peace and love?” Tucker asks on the song, and it seems to capture Sleater-Kinney’s worldview of music being a tool for change and fun. “Combat Rock” features most of the album’s most cutting lines (and its most memorable guitar riff), with Brownstein hiccuping through the verses and the band once again taking aim at the uncomfortable silence that followed 9/11 and preceded the Iraq war: “Where is the questioning? Where is our protest song? Since when is skepticism un-American?” Album closer “Sympathy” provides almost too much emotional catharsis, with Tucker praying for the life of her son (who was born premature).

One Beat stands up as Sleater-Kinney’s most diverse album, with many different sounds and moods. For every serious Bush-bashing song on the album there’s also one that’s a lot of fun, be it the tongue-in-cheek tale of the good girl gone bad in “Prisstina” or the poppy “Oh!” with its wah-wah chorus. But it’s the political moments that get the most attention, and for good reason: while other bands would follow in their path and perhaps dull One Beat‘s impact, it’s an album that took a lot of courage to make. In a time where almost everyone else was being quiet, Sleater-Kinney spoke up, and that’s what makes One Beat a rock album of incredible power and purpose.

Nearly ten years removed from One Beat, its shots at republicans, anti-intellectualism, and consumerism still feel depressingly relevant. What also feels relevant about the album is that it’s a reminder of what rock music can be: One Beat feels like an album that had to be made and heard. I debate endlessly about what my favorite Sleater-Kinney album is, but One Beat is probably the one that I respect the most, because it’s so fearless and strong in its convictions.