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: #1 – Life Without Buildings – “Any Other City”

For some, the scrape of fingernails on a blackboard is an exquisite sensation. Dentists’ drills provide a satisfying tingle. Animals dying in agony make a heavenly choir. And Sue Tompkins, ‘idiosyncratic’ frontwoman of Life Without Buildings, makes a beautiful noise. Whether or not someone has a good voice is one of those subjective arguments that isn’t usually worth even starting. But really, only mad people and immediate family could warm to Tompkins.

That’s John Mulvey of NME, reviewing my favorite album of the last decade, Life Without Buildings’ Any Other City. For the record, I don’t enjoy the sound of dentists’ drills or animals dying in agony, and I’m not related to Sue Tompkins. But maybe I am a bit mad to feel so strongly about an album that has been heard by so few people.

Mulvey’s criticism of Tompkins was a common one when the album was first released in 2001: “The band sounds good, but what’s with the singing?” The thing is, Mulvey isn’t exactly wrong. I totally get why the singing style of Tompkins could be torture on the ears of some listeners, who hear what she’s doing and attribute it to pretentious artsiness or put-on quirkiness. However, for a few listeners like me, what Tompkins does on Any Other City is nothing short of pure magic.

Tompkins instantly stands out to anyone who listens to the band due to her high-pitched voice and talk-singing style, which forsakes traditional music lyricism for repetition, seemingly nonsense phrases, stutters and squeals. Love her or hate her, what’s undeniable is that Tompkins has a completely unique presence with boundless energy, enthusiasm, and charisma, and along with her lyrics it makes her a strangely endearing figure. There’s never been a singer quite like Tompkins, or an album quite like Any Other City.

On the surface, Tompkins’ lyrics would seem to be free-form and improvised, random words that she just threw together to go with music. In fact, the opposite is true: according to other band members, the lyrics were labored over endlessly, and realizing that there’s a method to all of the craziness happening is crucial to understanding the genius of the band. Her lyrics strike a perfect chord between being abstract and accessible: they’re just connected enough for a listener to gather some sort of meaning, but are also impossible to fully pin down. And even the meaning you figure out can change depending on what mood you’re in when you listen.

The band behind Tompkins is also a big part of Any Other City‘s success, as they play tight, melodic instrumentals that are the perfect match for her unpredictable style. The band plays a lot of different tempos over the album (and many of the songs have abrupt tempo shifts), but they’re able to keep a steady backdrop to go along with the organized chaos that Sue provides. An incredible gift Tompkins had was an ability to always be at the right place with her non-stop lyrics, which allows them to never sound disjointed or out of sync.

People talk a lot about desert island albums, ones that you could picture yourself replaying over and over for the rest of your life. Any Other City is a desert island album full of desert island songs. “The Leanover” is one of those, with a laid-back atmosphere created by Robert Johnston’s melodic guitar that is fronted by one of Tompkins’ most jittery vocal deliveries. She cycles through phrases endlessly over the song’s five minute length, tossing in pop culture references and exclamations. This song is basically why I love the band so much: I feel like I can listen to it forever, never get sick of it, and yet still never be entirely sure what it means. It isn’t frustrating, but rather perfectly ambiguous and interpretive in the way that I feel only applies to truly great art.

Most of the songs on Any Other City have that same feeling and can be endlessly dissected or quoted but never fully understood. “PS Exclusive” is an up-tempo, danceable number with plenty of Sue repetitions (“the right stuff!”). “Juno” is the album’s most accessible song, as the ringing guitars and a more toned-down performance from Tompkins make it more of a traditional pop song (although still one with many tempo changes). The inherent likability of Tompkins and her off-the-wall sincerity goes a long way in making the lyrics feel genuine and poignant instead of annoying and art-school.

Life Without Buildings have maintained an aura of mystery that is increasingly rare these days. The band broke up shortly after Any Other City was released, as Tompkins wanted to pursue her art. The live album Live at the Annandale Hotel surfaced in 2007, and its faithful renditions of the songs on Any Other City provide a perfect footnote to the band’s brief career. The live album also hints at why the band broke up, as Tompkins is charmingly uncomfortable in the spotlight (the album is worth listening to for her awkward stage banter alone).

Any Other City was briefly hyped when it was initially released, but now is largely ignored and difficult to find (there’s currently one used copy on amazon.com available for 40 dollars). In a decade that would later see the boom in file sharing, music websites, and blogs, that makes it part of a dying breed of albums: the buried treasure that is loved by a small cult of people while largely being unknown to everyone else. Its obscurity is partially by design, as Tompkins remains an acquired taste that could never be embraced by most listeners. However, those mad people that appreciate her unique charms will find Any Other City to be an entirely singular album, with a style and beauty that is found nowhere else.

Life Without Buildings

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.