I Know that My Life Makes You Nervous
As I sit here on the porch of some friends’ apartment, on one of the first truly pleasant days since I moved to this accursed city in January, drinking a can of Tecate with lime (the only way to make that swill palatable) and getting my daily dose of Vitimin C from the tequila sunrise by my feet for breakfast (it’s 4 p.m. but I haven’t had anything to eat yet today), I am contemplating a band who are distinct in the current musical landscape – something which is not easy to do. There are elements of shoegaze and British Indie bands of the aughts; there is some sort of stadium rock vibe; there are the tender warblings of a folk-hero. And yet, Glasvegas comes together as something greater than the whole of its parts.
The first time I heard them, back in probably 2008, being hyped in the NME (two music reviews and two mentions of NME hype . . . well, cut me some slack, I am doing British bands), I frankly thought they were rubbish. I heard “Geraldine,” or maybe “Daddy’s Gone” – I don’t remember which one I listened to first, but presumably both around the same time – and was completely nonplussed. The instrumentation was simple, the drumming in particular facile, it sounded sort of dull, low-key but in kind of a bad way, with uninspired melodies and mediocre lyrics – as far as I could tell. The Glasgow accent is difficult at best to understand. And I sort of dismissed them. Then their Christmas EP came out – A Snowflake Fell and it Felt like a Kiss – and (again through the NME – sorry) I heard, not the single off of it, but another cut, called “Fuck You It’s Over,” which immediately had me convinced it was the greatest Christmas song in modern times. No, really; it’s a Christmas song. And it really is stellar. “I gave you all the love a boy could ever give, and in this world there’s only one of me,” wails James Allan, looking like a modern-day, Glaswegian Joe Strummer. (That was another thing that always sort of bothered me: James and his cousin Rab Allan were so transparently imitating Strummer’s look; that said, James has a not dissimilar bone structure, so it’s not entirely his fault. And besides, bad artists copy, good artists steal.) Then, for some reason last December, I got “Daddy’s Gone” stuck in my head; just the chorus. But it made me give it a more than perfunctory listen. And I discovered then that the song is about an absent father, and the lyrics turn out to be really very touching, very poignant, basically amounting to Allan saying that he doesn’t want to grow up like his father – be 50 years old and not know his children, not have anyone to love or to take care of, or who will take care of him. It’s heartfelt without being an indictment, forward-looking instead of dwelling on the past.
Then there’s the song “It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry,” another early single (all tracks mentioned so far, save the Christmas track, were actually self-released singles before the band signed to Columbia). I was similarly uninspired after the first listen, but I’ve had it on repeat since I saw them on Tuesday. As the former governor would say, “It’s fucking golden.” The title seems like a mouthful – hell, let’s just say it is one. Yet it has a ring to it. And there’s a reason for that: it’s referencing Hank Williams, of all people, legend though he may be. (“Your cheatin’ heart will make you weep, you’ll cry and cry and try to sleep.”) And this is why James Allan is such a force: he’s willing to draw on such a wide range of artists, never making it too obvious, and always creating something distinctly his own. The song in question has a heartwrenching melody. The lyrics sometimes leave vast spaces between them, sometimes scramble to fit everything into a line; repetition, at first seemingly simple-minded, instead drives home a point, even when playing with a nursery rhyme: “Liar, liar, liar, liar, liar pants on fire / lies, alibies, lies, more alibies.” You look at that lyric and probably think, “Christ, who writes like that? That’s awful!” But within the context of the song, especially with the haunting melody, it works somehow, against all laws of taste. How he pulls it off, I don’t know. But he does. And it’s lines like “I feel so guilty about the things I said to my mum when I was ten year old” sprinkled in that really sell the song, even when it looks like some rambling, rhymeless cockamamie.
The instrumentation of that song – of all their songs – is massive. How they get such a big sound is a mystery to me, especially during this tour, when James Allan has put down his guitar to explicitly play the role of frontman. Their sound, shockingly, does not suffer. It’s still built to fill Shea Stadium. Don’t get me wrong, it has changed since their debut, more than just losing a guitar: the current drummer, Jonna Löfgren, is far more skilled than their last, Caroline McKay (though why they insist on very slightly overweight girl drummers who stand at the kit instead of sit is honestly a bit beyond me); and Rab Allan’s guitar selection has altered. Instead of the Mosrite, a wicked-cool guitar made famous by the Ventures (some even credit the extent of their success to the Mosrite guitar, which had a beefier and grittier sound than Fender’s Stratocaster, the most dominant guitar of the day), he instead wields two Gibsons: an Explorer and an LP. This, frankly, was a huge disappointment to me. Very few people play Mosrites anymore, but they have an outstanding sound, far more interesting than the blah-metal sound of the Explorer or the very typical sound of the Les Paul, and a wild cool-factor. Hell, honestly, even when I didn’t like the band, I gave them major props for their equipment: the Mosrite for lead, the Telecaster or Jazzmaster for rhythm (both of which gave a great shoegaze-y shimmer), and a Rickenbacker 4001 bass, a bass guitar that seems to always be on the cusp of stardom but never quite crosses over. (Paul McCartney used one for a while, but people only really remember his Hofner – you know, the violin bass.) Thankfully, Paul Donoghue, the bass player, is still rocking the Ricky (though his Airline was also great looking). But the Explorer, which was the main guitar used for the set, though still creating an admirable soundscape, just didn’t have the appeal of the old Mosrite for me. Like I said, it sounded a little more typical.
But enough geeking out about the equipment. What about the show? Well, it was good. Damn good, really. First we had to wait a minute, until the stage had sufficient fog. But then they took to the stage, James Allan with a thick, white, glowing mic cable, like something out of Bladerunner, to match his white track jacket, white shirt, bleached white denim jeans, and suspenders (he was never one for fashion), black sunglasses ever-presently glued to his face. They all look like a cross between 70s punk and modern-day Euro-trash-sheik. The track top doesn’t help. And yet somehow it’s all fine, it all works; leave it by the wayside. The lighting is subtle, but supple. At one point it blacks out almost completely, leaving only James backlit, singing a capella, looking like the forlorn angel of Joe Strummer, all in white, gripping the microphone like a crucifix.
Part 2 to come.