Bombs by Night, Balloons by Morning
   Chris Willie Williams is not only the webmaster of the highly entertaining Disclaimer Music Review Archive, he's also a budding pop genius whom you should pester until he sells you a copy of his CD. I've been listening to it for a week straight now, and I can honestly say it has brought me more listening pleasure than a lot of the big-label discs I've reviewed. Willie has a genuine knack for writing catchy, meaningful songs, and an adequate facility at one-man-bandsmanship: a little ragged but not unacceptably loose on the drums, full of well-crafted guitar licks, tasteful programming on the keyboards, and a nice voice that bears a striking resemblance to Ann Arbor indie-rock legend Frank Allison.
   Going under the name Disclaimer (apparently it's an actual group, but no one except Willie had time to play on the recordings), he stakes his claim to pop glory with 15 songs, at least four of which are good enough to get him at least an independent record contract. I speak specifically of "Your Bird is Going to Fly Away", "Ultra XX Living Solely on XY," "Maybe Today He'll Explode" and "Similar to Sugar Pill." Unfortunately, they're balanced by a similar number of songs that really shouldn't have been on this CD at all.
   After a brief instrumental that would really have been something if fleshed out with a second theme and some polyphony or counterpoint, the disc kicks off with "Your Bird is Going to Fly Away", a terrific rocker built on a circle-of-fifths guitar riff that takes a couple unexpected turns but is undermined by a syncopated bass line where a more straightforward thumping bottom end would be preferred. This is a great vocal, even screaming in tune, of some wonderful lyrics. The imagery of a caged bird standing for a lover is not new, but it still works, especially in "if you break that poor bird's heart, you might as well break its neck." The production tricks are impressive, too, especially the bit where the vocal line is sped up but the track isn't. How did he do that with home equipment?
   "The Imaginary Thing" has a terrific arrangement, with an ascending keyboard/guitar break coming out of the thumping chords in the chorus, but I am entirely unclear as to the meaning of the lyrics. What is this "imaginary thing" being referred to, and if it's imaginary, how could it disappear? Anyway, the tune is pretty nice, working through a couple mini-arcs in the verse before a long climb down the scale in the chorus.
   The precious lyrics are a bit more overbearing on "Clockwork Drudgery", with its reference to old movies I'd never heard of (a quick Google search turned up a nice Roger Ebert review of Last Year at Marienbad, though it didn't illuminate the relationship of that movie to Wilt the Stilt). An uneventful melody is redeemed with beautiful falsetto harmonies, but the best thing about this song is an excellent guitar arrangement; the main riff is a grinding figure in, I think, C minor (a very menacing key for guitars), while between verses a higher figure plays a double-time riff and occasionally a Moog-style synth sweep adds to the portentous gloom. One of the finest performances on the disk..
   "Five Mile Hill" works out an extended metaphor of the Sisyphean myth representing self-destructive behavior, but it's really not that pompous - I didn't notice it 'till the fifth listen. Instead, this tune grabs you with very cool bass backing vocals (Willie overdubbed), jangly acoustic guitars (recorded with just a bit of pick noise for authenticity), and a tune that, while technically not impressive, works within its five-note range very effectively so that you won't stop humming it.
   I have to wonder, when you write songs as well as Willie does, what is the point of doing cover songs that are less interesting than the original material? Anyway, he delivers a fine rendition of "Life in Detail" (I've never heard the original version) with a clever bit of guitar production, slipping from mono distortion on the first half of a line into stereo fuzz on the second half. And the vocal here has a deep, gruff attack, which I wish he had used on some other songs.
   The end of track 6 and the beginning of track 7 sound like your CD player crapping out. I know it's supposed to sound bad, but the thing is, it sounds bad. A poor choice, just plain unfair to the listener. It doesn't help that the song coming out of the noise, "The Decipherment of Linear B", is the worst one on the album. Formless synth backing under a monotone melody don't do much for me. And it may be my inner grumpy old man coming out, but teen angst lyrics hold less and less appeal the further you get from being a teenager.
   Willie snaps out of his funk with another cover (again, I don't know the original), "Billy Morgan." It's apparently a Celtic-style ballad about the Irish troubles, but it's transformed into something much hipper with a house-music drum machine, subtle synth backing, and an enthusiastic vocal. Coming between two of the duller tunes, this was a great choice. And the harmonica is delivered with panache.
   "Unopposed" reaches further into Willie's past for some preteen angst. It's another shapeless synth ballad, but at least there are a couple hooks present, especially on "thanks Mom, I will, I lied." And the nylon-string guitar plays a well-constructed arpeggio against a crunchy electric part.
   The last third of the album is amazing, though. "Ultra XX Living Solely on XY" is Willie's masterpiece, with spooky guitar progressions, Radiohead-quality production touches (especially in the use of reverb), and one of the most complex, yet knowing and detailed, breakup lyrics I've heard. It's a sort of metaphysics study of love. I get the feeling Willie's a philosophy student; I detect some of the ideas of Berkeley or Hegel in these lyrics. And, weird as it sounds, the title phrase is a killer hook. Put a solid band behind this tune, and I think it would be an alternative-radio hit.
   The last cover tune is from the Pet Shop Boys (again I don't know the original), but done with prominent guitar and a fuzz bass that pops along in unexpected places, like the offbeat of three. Willie's voice is well suited to this song, as he actually sounds like whichever Pet Shop Boy sings on their hits. The sentiment of the lyrics is a bit unnerving coming after the strong condemnation in "Ultra XX" but it just shows the breadth of Willie's conception of the world.
   "Maybe Today He'll Explode" works similar territory to "Your Bird is Going to Fly Away" but does so with a more confident drumming style and a killer lead line. The melody has a fine moment when the last note of the verse pivots into the first note of the chorus - very clever. It's followed by a pointless recreation of videogame music, and a lengthy slice of self-pity that has some nice harmonizing but doesn't really go anywhere.
   The last cut, while not the deepest (any Cat Stevens fans out there?), is the most joyous. Willie turns himself into the Beach Boys (complete with Mike Love-style deep rumblings) to back a four-chord piano number of pure love that has a nice modulation into the chorus via a piano hook. It brings a smile to hear him rhyming about the love he shares reading magazines silently with his amour. The middle section is ruined by a lot of atonal digital guitar noise, which brings up another issue generally. Even if the guitars in this section were suited to the song, they still would sound overly processed; I think Willie's using one of those multi-effect guitar boxes. I can't blame him, I've got one myself, but it's very tempting to overuse the effects and get a cheesy flavor to the guitar parts. An amp with an overdrive channel and a chorus pedal with get all the guitar sounds you ever need, and won't have that obvious digitized effect. The song snaps back into delightful piano-based pop for the last verse, though, and I'm glad the album ends this way.
   Disclaimer needs to be more selective about what they include on an album, but the high points here show genuine pop music smarts, an ear for arrangements that complement the melody, and some of the most thoughtful lyrics I've ever heard from a 20-year-old (when I was 20 I was writing songs like "I'm Pissed Off"). Highly recommended.


  • From Chris Willie Williams: Thank you for your amazingly kind- and balanced- review, and for obviously having spent so much time putting it together! I'm flabbergasted.
    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.

  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Baa baa bup." Steve says: "Well, that makes "Unopposed" quite impressive, as it's a very convincing emotional portrait. Frank Allison was the king of Michigan's indie-pop scene until felled by a horrible disease that paralyzed his vocal cords. Check out his work at this site. Thanks for writing!"

    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.

    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


  • From Chris Willie Williams:Once again, thank you very much for an exceedingly kind review, and for putting so much thought into your comments! I really appreciate it, and I've been grinning like a maniac (a very happy maniac) ever since I started reading your critique. The bit about Morrissey made me giggle.
    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!