Bombs by Night, Balloons by Morning
I'm thrilled that you like the album as much as you seem to. Frankly, you give me way too much credit in both the musical and lyrical departments. (My songwriting process isn't quite as much "Well, I think a syncopated bassline would compliment the circle-of-fifths guitar riff here" so much as "Mmm. Me like way bass sound when I do that. Good sound happy. Ooh- lunchtime!") And I understand your complaints about the record, too. My friend Scott Floman had a similarly annoyed reaction to the CD-skipping noise on track seven.
I'm glad "Ultra XX" was your favorite song on the album- it's mine too.
Just one note about "Unopposed": It's not really about my preteen past- not that you had any way of knowing that. Jen and I used to always see this middle school kid in my subdivision playing street hockey by himself, and Jen would try to make me cry by making up pathetic, sad stories about how no one else would play with him and the other kids made fun of him. I hope that none of that is true, but I figured that if it was, the kid at least deserved a song about him (annoyingly whiny though the song may be).
Oh- and who's Frank Allison, by the way? Is he worth checking out?
Anyway, thanks again for the review. It's very encouraging.
The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss
A false-hearted lover is worse than a thief
For a thief will just rob you and take what you have
But a false-hearted lover will lead you to the grave
“On Top of Old Smoky”
Unless you’re Morrissey or a nun, you’re going to get your heart broken some time. If you’re paying attention, you learn a lesson or two. If you’re focused, you might just take some of that anguish and make something beautiful out of it. Chris Willie Williams has done just that.
In his guise as the recording artist Disclaimer, Willie has taken what appears to be the abrupt termination of a long love affair and crafted 11 innovative, catchy, brooding songs that speak eloquently of his deep hurts. Disclaimer’s last album, Bombs by Night, Balloons by Morning was a patchy affair, consisting of a few brilliant originals, a handful of questionable covers, and some poorly-recorded filler; second time out, he’s got an exquisite sound, consistently high-quality arrangements and melodies, and an honest-to-goodness concept album. It’s like going from Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper.
If I didn’t know Willie recorded the whole thing at his house, I’d never have guessed it the sound quality is strictly professional, and the production bears a lot of interesting touches, from surprising samples to vocoder to subtle synthesizers. Especially good are the guitar sounds, with an organic feel, and the nice use of reverb and delay to integrate the acoustic and digital signals. The drums are a bit mid-rangy, but that’s the only flaw in the sound.
Willie’s performances are much improved as well; his vocals not only hit a lot more notes this time around, but also generate some genuine emotion, as in the raging “You Ruined Everything” or the befuddled “God Said, ‘Plastics!’” Not every song works well as a composition, but the sounds are great.
The album starts with one of the best compositions, “Fixing a Hole.” Over a surprising bed of gentle bass and unexpected sproings and beeps, Willie gives us a lilting Irish melody and a litany of his faults. The vocoder seems like a reference to Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” but Disclaimer is miles ahead of the Oxford mopes. “God Said, ‘Plastics!’” follows with a terrific disjointed groove built on a jerky snare-hi hat and dialoging wah-wah guitars. I wish the chorus didn’t wash out into a melodic drone, but even there the burbling synths provide a nice counterpoint.
”Vending Machine” is simply a brilliant metaphor: “My mind is broken vending machine – I can see the thought I want to articulate behind the plastic’s smudgy sheen.” The tuned cowbell fills and Byzantine choral chanting sample provide a thoroughly fascinating arrangement. “Like the Backside of a Bulimic’s Teeth” finds Willie getting minimal, with a harmonically daring bass and light drums shuffle supporting a bare-bones but luscious guitar line. The melody has a nice deer-in-the-highlights tremble that suits the out-of-body lyrics.
The top rocker on the album is “You Ruined Everything,” with a terrific blend of catchy melody and gruff guitar (the digital burps leading into the refrain are a nice touch, too.) The hook built on “I got screwed” is a candidate for the broken-hearted anthem of the decade, and I think it might just catch on. It’s a big letdown to go from that charging energy into the fairly dull “Generic Shoulder Blade Tattoo,” which relies too much on a gentle but unengaging guitar line. The melody is lovely, but the arrangement needs to be fleshed-out. However, the central image in the lyrics (“You can push your thumb through my soft spot and wiggle it around to make me march”) is sure to grab more than one listener by surprise.
A fascinating beat (based on what sounds like a rotary telephone being dialed and a box of coal being shaken) leads into a compelling keyboard instrumental with Chinese harmonies on the piano and then Indian raga sounds that is "Musafa Kisses", but the climax is an unintelligible synthesized recital that cuts away from the arrangement just when it’s getting interesting. The melody is reprised on Moog synthesizer, though, so that makes for good listening. The tempo slows with “De Sitter Horizons,” but the pulsing bass and engaging reverb on the guitar keep things lively, and the singsong melody is boosted by the harmonies on the bridge. The distorted guitar is a nice counterpoint to the rest of the arrangement.
Another brilliant combination of styles is “Hell,” which features a lightly syncopated guitar riff with a latin-style tom-tom beat that grooves right into Superfly territory on the chorus, which features this witty assertion: “In the end, the love you take is inversely proportional to the love you make.” Later verses add wobbly feedback drones and harmonies in a nice touch. You’d never guess from the gentle capoed guitar in “Wrong for the Right Reasons is Still Wrong” is yet another tale of lost love; it ought to be a peppy little dance tune. But the contrast is just right, as the lyrics address the issue of putting on a happy face in spite of it all, and the keyboard breaks are sprightly and joyful, although the oscillating synth in later verses turns ominous.
The album fittingly concludes with the martial drums and grinding riff of “Please Pardon Our Progress!!!”, in which Joe Hinchcliffe’s duet with Willie provide another interesting contrast between wild-eyed agony and firm accusation (which the lyrics also veer wildly between). The arrangement builds with layers and layers of wordless backing vocals, squalling guitars and grinding effects, until a scream from Joe sets off a chant of “Happiness is no longer an option” that builds until the song, and the album, ends with a gigantic sigh of exhaustion.
I’m really sorry that Willie’s been through the sloughs of despond, but it seems to have focused his musical instincts this is a terrific album, full of creative melodies, intriguing arrangements, and powerful performances.
The lyrics leave an odd taste, though your typical heartbreak album has at least a little bit of fond reminiscence over the past, or some nice things to say about a lost lover (to make you realize just why the loss is so hard to take), but Willie’s all about the pain. The liner notes include the phrase, “the loss defeats the memory,” but one likes for the memory to get a little bit of playing time. That said, the lyrics are remarkably eloquent, full of striking imagery (a hug that feels like “a handful of cold spaghetti”, “you left me hanging in a noose of smoke rings”), clever wordplay (“fêted, fellated, and then filleted”) and just plain resonant turns of phrase (“I’m sick of bailing water – I’m in the mood for a fucking swim.”)
Chris Willie Williams has done it again, and this album deserves as many listeners as it can find. Please contact Willie and get a copy for every one of your broken-hearted, happily married, prepubescently chaste, or Episcopal priest friends.
SPECIAL FEATURE: DISCLAIMER GLOSSARY
Disclaimer’s new album is chock full of obscure references to literature, entertainment and commerce. As a public service, I’ve assembled this guide. Please let me know if I've missed or erred on references.
The Simpsons : A popular American animated television show
“God Said, ‘Plastics!’”: In the 1967 film The Graduate , new college baccalaureate Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) is told by a well-meaning family friend that the future lies in “One word – plastics!” It is unwelcome advice.
Kokigami : Japanese paper art designed to adorn the male genitalia and used in sex play
Chick Tracts : Pamphlets, written and drawn by Jack Chick, which present a cartoon story designed to draw readers to Christianity. Some Christians who feel that Halloween is a devilish ritual hand them out to trick-or-treaters instead of candy.
Cheat code: In computer games, a keyboard sequence which, when used, gives the player an advantage in the game, for example infinite ammunition, infinite lives, the ability to walk through walls, or fly
Lent: the period of 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, when some Christians observe a fast (such as “giving up” chocolate)
Monkey paws: In W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 short story “The Monkey’s Paw” , the title object grants the wishes of its possessors, with literal accuracy and horrific results
Flowchart : a document used in systems management to document the decision-making process (for example, “if ‘no’ then go to step 3”)
Spirograph : a toy containing interlocking wheels with holes for the tip of ballpoint pen; it is used to create complex designs by simply spinning the pen around the circle
"Backside of a Bulimic's Teeth": bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by frequent intentional vomiting; the exposure to gastric juices rots the backside of the bulimic's teeth
Secretariat : a famous racehorse, active in the early 1970's; it is unclear how he could pupate (used of insects to describe growth from a larva into the intermediate stage of pupa)
"Like the spiders we swallow in our sleep": a common statement is that the average person swallows seven spiders in their sleep per year. It's not true .
Blister paks : plastic coating applied to products mounted on cardboard
Post-navel drip: a pun on post-nasal drip , a condition in which mucus is not retained within the nose but drips down the throat (as many allergy sufferers can attest)
"Breakin Up Is Hard to Do": a popular song of the early 1960's, made famous by Neil Sedaka
"Smashed my forelegs and dumped me in the stream": this may be a reference to horses, who cannot survive a broken leg and are usually shot
Decant: from the Oxford English Dictionary, "To pour (wine, etc.) from the ordinary bottle in which it is kept in the cellar into a decanter for use at table; also, loosely, to pour out (wine, ale, etc.) into a drinking vessel."
Offal: from the Oxford English Dictionary, "Contemptuously: The parts of a slaughtered or dead animal unfit for food; putrid flesh; carrion; also, opprobriously, the bodies or limbs of the slain. "
The Great Criswell : a psychic who appeared in bad movies in the 1950's and on the Johnny Carson show in the 1960's. He predicted the end of the world on August 18, 1999.
"Lost you underneath the shells": in many cities and carnivals, you may encounter the shell game, in which the host places an object under one of three shells, then maneuvers the shells and then asks the bettor to name which shell contains the object. Typically, they sucker you with an easy match to whet your interest, then get very tricky.
"Soft spot": babies are born with skulls that have flexible bones (to allow for passage through the birth canal). These bones eventually fuse into the adult cranium, but for a while, the fontanel , or soft spot, remains as a fleshy spot on the head with no bones underneath.
Mufasa : the title character in the 1995 animated film The Lion King
De Sitter horizons: Willem de Sitter was an astronomer who theorized that the universe is constantly expanding; thus De Sitter horizons are the edges of the universe which continually move further apart
Jersey : a type of shirt worn by athletes, typically with the player's name and number stitched on the back
Metronomic: a metronome is an upside-down pendulum which ticks off a chosen number of beats per minute, never speeding up or slowing down
"In the end, the love you take is inversely proportional to the love you make": a reference to the Beatles' 1969 album Abbey Road, which concludes with the couplet, "In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make." An inverse proportion is a mathematical relationship in which one element increases at the same rate as the other decreases.
Plastic flash: in injection molded plastic, extra bits of plastic around the object, which must be trimmed
Siamese twin: also called conjoined twins , twins born sharing body parts and only separable through surgery (if at all)
Phantom limb : the sensation among amputees that amputated appendages are still producing nervous sensations
Olive branch: classical symbol of peace
Christmas tree : a fir or pine tree decorated with lights and ornaments to celebrate the birth of Jesus, on December 25
stipple art : a printing process in which the shapes are created by placing dots closer together or farther apart depending on the intensity of shading
Falun Gong : a Chinese spiritual movement, the adherents of which are subject to imprisonment by the Communist government
M-80 : A type of firecracker, illegal in the United States, known to blow off fingers and hands. It is also known as a "quarter-stick of dynamite" or "cherry bomb."
"Slant drill" : to drill for oil which is located in a bed underneath a body of water by drilling from the shore at an angle
Anti-bird spikes on the pet store sign: vertical spikes attached to buildings to prevent birds from roosting; the image is ironic
Just one little note: I'm the one screaming at the end of "Please Pardon Our Progress!!!" and not Joe. Sounds petty, I know, and I wouldn't mention it except that I would hate for my flat, noisy vocalizing to be confused with the beautiful, wounded singing Joe does on the song. (He's the one singing the chorus and adding the Beach Boys harmonies; I'm the one who sort of bleats the final verse alone.)
But yeah... thank you very much. I'm happy beyond belief that you dug the record, and will try not to let all the praise go to my head. I'll instruct my entourage and groupies to tell me if I start acting arrogant. :)
Complaints, criticisms, or bribery reviews: Contact me!