Hardcore for Nerds

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Dublin, Ireland. 27, history, politics & law graduate
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*from the title of a review of Arthur Koestler's Arrival and Departure by Michael Foot, Evening Standard, Nov. 26, 1943.
Jan 24

Torres, ‘Mother Earth, Father God’ from Torres (2013)

Still on my initial listens of this album, but oh my, it is so good. Not quite what I was expecting from the preview song, 'Honey', in that the record as a whole rarely reaches the range of volume contained in and suggested by that song (or indeed this one), but it is still one for EMA fans. Likewise, I was disappointed to realise this opening track was not the same as this song by Japanese noise-rock vocal virtuosos Lhasa, but it does share some timbral similarities. Torres is guitar rock stripped back to the bare bones and then built up in layers of embellishment, songwriting tricks and pure ambition. And it works much better than most such attempts do.

Torres also puts me in mind of the undersung Some Bells self-titled album from last year, which really excited me with its range of styles and energy - along with the similar guitar-based solo work of singer Kerrin Pantelakis - until I began to grow a little tired of the starkness of its contrasts and dynamics. It’s still a great record, and I hope to discover it a bit more in my endless quest to find an equal to EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, but I use it here as a comparison to show what I already think is evidence that Torres will hold up better (and, although also a debut, is a more accomplished record by a fair margin).

Part of it is that while Some Bells is a very blues-inflected record, which weighs heavy on the ears, Torres is a Nashville album - performed by a graduate of a songwriting program at that city’s Belmont University - and, while by no means defined by it, doesn’t escape the primary musical form of that area. The Pitchfork review describes the album’s songs as veering between “rangy indie rock and hushed folk”, but the last may be a misnomer for songs which have, for the most part, a perceptible country lilt. Watch this spellbinding studio performance of one of the album’s purest and best songs, ‘Jealousy & I’, in which a wide-brimmed hat is incidentally worn throughout (also, I haven’t delved much into the lyrics yet, but a line like “would you rather have a stranger in your bed/rather than let someone like me take care of you?” both hits surprisingly hard and seems quintessentially ‘country’).

Torres is a mercurial album: its songs “never insist on their structure, but eventually it becomes clear that they dip and surge at odd, intuitive moments, suggesting a creative songwriting mind”. After the sheer massiveness of ‘Honey’ and the wondrous beauty of ‘Jealousy & I’, the next track ‘November Baby’ starts off in a way that my mind - primed with country associations - registered as somewhat schmaltzy (though the Pitchfork review notes that the “mesmerizing lamp-glow of finger-picked guitar that opens “November Baby” could have shown up on an early Modest Mouse record”, so what do I know?) in the way that it’s not objectionable but you’d wish it was done a little differently, a little more left-of-centre; which is exactly where the song has travelled to a few minutes later. 

'Jealousy & I' features a lyric which on passing sounds like “mine cheese hole” which on paying closer attention is actually revealed as “mine, she's all mine…” the two parts repeated and run into each other so that the pause appears in the wrong place. It's a simple trick, perhaps, but in context it's attention-grabbing and it's one of the many moments on the album which make you sit up and take notice. 'When Winter's Over' contains the only real guitar riff on the whole record, and it stands out all the better for it. 'Chains', a sparse, left-field track even for this album, sounds like elements of an XX song with a Xiu Xiu one (with a raw, performative honesty in place of Jamie Stewarts' almost self-effacing theatricality) in the middle of it - and again, it works. In particular thanks to the extra sibilance of “so soon s-s-soon”, another vocal trick, or the extended “gone”; or the striking lyrics which announce, midway through the album “don’t give up on me just yet”. And as the Pitchfork review notes, the jarring, sudden ending comes as “a rude snip of the tape that startles me even at the tenth hearing” - reminiscent of EMA’s early tape manipulations.

At times, especially in its latter half, the experimentation approaches that of Grimes - the opening of ‘Don’t Run Away Emilie’, which the Nashville Cream review laments changes from “a slightly off-center, dub-like bass line that soon overlaps a simple guitar progression to form an interesting polyrhythmic figure” to something more conventional. Which, in this case, is an almost pitch-perfect copy of Karen O in one of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ slower songs (say, from It’s Blitz) but with a fuller voice and a sepulchral-sounding guitar behind it. If the album has a fault, it is perhaps that it makes too much use of strings as an accompaniment - see the schmaltz comment - but it’s a matter of taste and they do give a useful bit of lift, or even (as in ‘Mother Earth, Father God’) an extra punch. The closing songs (‘Moon & Back’ and finale ‘Waterfall’ are written about particularly well in the Pitchfork review) slink away gently, but not without leaving their own lasting impressions. This is an album that demands repeat listening; it’s sure to be part of my listening for some time yet.

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