Reeling in the Real: Pale Eyes’ sweatshop Reviewed

Pale Eyes - Sweatshop

Ben McCarthy and Lisa J. Smith, formerly of Archivist (see my earlier review), have formed a new project called Pale Eyes, producing a debut album called sweatshop. It contains songs for the new age of anxiety, in which we feel the claustrophobia of globalization, and the disgust of complicity. Frequently confronting you with ugly feelings, Pale Eyes produce electronic violence; and broken hip-hop, time of fractured joint, when it won’t be long before we all come tumbling down. Their music and lyrics also perform a vivisection on the heaving mass of human need, and its peculiar anatomy of melancholy. sweatshop is comparable, and every bit as important and striking, as The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. Pale Eyes’ debut is about futility, but also about facing up to that pointlessness. The heavy use of sampling and synth processing stitches together a whole from the disparate, leaving frayed edges that threaten to unravel, embodying the failure to repeat.

The opening track “waves & radiation” is a plunderphonic sound collage of tension, starting with a metronome and ending with “if I didn’t have my art, I would be madder than I am.” It is musically reminiscent of Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” and neatly introduces you to the ideologies working within the entire record, including memories of real protest, and the mental and emotional implications of our current world order.

It’s followed by “kltr kma,” the title of which makes me think of Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma.” It features an earworm chorus, and the breaks mirror the cracking of the pretence of the human pose. McCarthy alternates between rapid-fire wordplay and elastic, cyclical vocals that ply your brain, while Lido Pimienta moans behind him in a fractious, urgent way that reminds me of Sue Denim. McCarthy sings:

These bloody needs the body’s fee;
you must be hungry just to be.
It was the sun that taught your lungs to breathe
for a mesh of metaphor with a mouth for the meat. . . .

So take the fist and take this kiss,
and take our common helplessness,
cause the very very body you resist
is the flesh upon which all this subsists.

Pales Eyes continue to interrogate this schizophrenic human reality that belies the figurative sense of a universal, whole humanity in songs such as “empathy exhaustion (also sprach Sarahthustra)” and “the consolation of action.” A collaboration with McCarthy’s sister, Sarah (who I assume to be the Sarah of the final track “Sarah says”), “empathy exhaustion” is all sharp dissonance tied together with a weaving double helix of a melody line, carried ethereally by Pimienta. The lyrics are begging for release from the fatigue of a debt-laden, neoliberal existence, cleverly tying moral debt to the general debtfare lives of this generation. This track is followed by “the consolation of action,” which takes its title from John Gray’s Straw Dogs, an excellent argument against the idea of Humanism, and its unwavering belief in redemption through progress. (Of course, Pale Eyes is not the first band to draw on Gray’s work; Vanilla Swingers crafted a concept album inspired by it, and the Manic Street Preachers have also referenced Gray in recent years.) In this track, as in Gray’s book, there’s a friction and fear of letting go of the “need” for action and changing the world. The idea is one that I feel is at the crux of Gray’s thesis, one which I return to again and again: “The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly.” The attempt to reconcile this possibility for a new paradigm with our own reality leads to additional feelings of lack and guilt. The sacred profanity of this wrecked psychological space blurs into poetry:

wake up the grace has fled
amplified daily dread
first day of the rest of your life
breaking across your head

have you been misinformed?
do you really not know what you do?
what were you crying for?
sweatshop livestock auto-tune?

Pimienta’s vocals are primal and fragile as the minimal sampled background sputters and clatters behind her. Lagging with the weight of conflicting culpabilities, McCarthy languidly sums up the earlier verses with the brilliant phrase “porno kingdom cum,” and then debt anxiety creeps in again as he follows it with “we cannot afford this wealth.”

There are more efforts to ease this cognitive dissonance and its discontents. “figure/ground” is achingly beautiful and soulful, easily oscillating between a foreground of smooth woodwind sound and a background of stuttering, glitchy beats liberated from Radiohead. Trapped between order and entropy, McCarthy’s vocals are striving yet dropping at the end of each line, lapping at and slowly eroding his own footing. In “philosophka,” access, and the choices it presumably offers, only succeeds in smothering you with the ghosts of the “what if” and the circling paranoia of always missing something. Embattled by expectations, McCarthy quietly sings, “Spoiled for choice don’t make me free, this is a necessity.”

In “little rain,” apocalyptic fervor dissipates into an honest message to a future generation, in this particular case, an infant son. McCarthy’s vocals are soothing in their melancholic glissandos, as the synth sounds drip and drop, rolling like tears from beneath a blindfold. It’s a refreshing conception of “the child,” resisting the simple purity/innocence/hope for the future trope; McCarthy sings, “I’m disinclined to see you for the dream you are, little boy, for I know what dreams can become.” The further lament of “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies” spins through slices of distortion as it bisects, dissects, intersects, intertexts, sexes, vexes. There is only a superficial catharsis. The self-aware-monster-inside motif, similar to that of Kevin Barnes’s more recent material, does not provide relief or a way forward. “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies,” along with the track “Trust,” warps Marvin Gaye references into a brittle rendering of passionate resignation.

Rather than a desensitizing lyrical crutch, the extended use of “fuck” on five out of the eleven songs displays a nuanced polyvalence, placing carnality on a parallel plane with ruin, hopelessness, frustration, manipulation, and hostility. You get the feeling that we are all being endlessly violated by circumstance, and that sex and intimacy are just other parts of the broken system. Many of the comedown moments in sweatshop feel like coiling up in an empty, post-coitus position after being consentingly fucked by capitalism.

sweatshop sounds like inner war, the struggling and juggling under the weight of hypocritical, perhaps nonsensical, guilt. It asks the question of how we can truly protest, especially when the technologies that allow for pockets of protest to form around the world are the same that devastate the environment, exploit others’ labour, and depend on the corporate states. As we all move toward immaterial labour, playbour, affective labour, etc., which is often overlooked in terms of capitalistic value, we are ever more implicated. At the heart of this first question, is another one: What do we truly “need”? Perfection is impossible, happiness is temporary, and progress is a myth. Is seeing the world rightly enough? I’m inclined to think so, especially as I see despair as more productive than joy, and depressive people as having a firmer grip on reality than anyone else. When all of the manufactured stabilizers, like the nation state, religion, science, time, Humanism, and monogamous relationships, are removed, there could perhaps be an opening for a new model; however, as sweatshop intimates, we will probably make new fictions to cope. At the same time that so many British musicians are exploring the failed utopias of modernism and social welfare, the Canadian Pale Eyes have moved in a different, less nostalgic, way to try to take up the same challenges. They have also succeeded in penetrating my general numbness, making me feel bad, and then making me wonder why I should feel that way.

sweatshop is released on August 6 via Bandcamp. See the Pale Eyes website for further details and updates.

kltr kma – Pale Eyes

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Lachrymations of a Jester: Momus and John Henriksson’s Thunderclown Reviewed

Momus and John Henriksson's Thunderclown Cover

Momus, aka Nick Currie, has always tread the tightrope between darkness and humour throughout his prolific songwriting career. He’s worked through several genres, some more experimental than others, becoming known as a provocateur poet for tackling subject matter few are willing to do in a song. This year’s release, an album entitled Thunderclown, was created in partnership with John Henriksson, and it is one of my top albums of the year.

The description of the record at Darla Records is a solid piece of propaganda:

“The collaboration began with John sampling obscure vinyl 45s from his collection then gathering Swedish and French musician friends to add live sax, organ, celesta, lapsteel, marimba and vibraphonette, breathing new life into these museum pieces. The compositions were then sent to Momus, who altered pitch, key and structure and crooned new songs over them. We could talk about the current interest in what Simon Reynolds calls Retromania, or cite the slogan ‘Modernity is our antiquity,’ but basically this is a deeply-felt album in which Japan-based Momus — slowed down by John’s sedate and haunting backings — expresses more loneliness and self-doubt than we’ve heard before, and might even be channeling Swedish John’s own recent history of heartbreak in the city of Paris.”

If I hadn’t already been a fan of Momus and willing to buy any album he puts out, that paragraph would have convinced me.

To me, this collection of songs is about the haunted bleeding through the happy, the nicotine stain through the white picket paint, the frown spidering out beneath the painted smile. Henriksson’s deft selection of musical backdrops utilizes nostalgic music from old films and musicals, which Momus has then warped and pulled into a rather grey taffy. Scratchy, crackly vinyl meets unwieldy, unraveling celluloid in an understated soundtrack to disappointment. As per his usual wordcraft and ability to create worlds populated with beautifully realized characters, Momus’s lyrics are layered with so much meaning and allusion that they could easily be turned into an essay on poetry.

The opening song, “Love Wakes the Devil,” sounds like a wonky calliope at a broken-down carnival, which is an apt soundscape for the worn world of a thunderclown. Momus sings in laconic, gentle tones about how he will show us the backside of love, and proceeds to lift the dirty tent flap to expose love with verbal dexterity:

Love wakes the devil
And love has no rival
For cutting survival
When you’re suicidal
And love is reliably
Hopelessly horrible
Tauntingly terrible
And that’s just the good side of love

We are first introduced to the thunderclown in the titular second track, which meanders through noises like wounded elephants, howling brass, ghostly vocal samples, and skewed bossa nova. Figures of the past, like Captain Cook, Errol Flynn, and Napoleon, make appearances in juxtaposition with the slums and bloody snow of the thunderclown realm. Then “Willow Pattern” stumbles in like an inebriated lullaby, laying Momus’s vocals over top of a sample from the Inchworm song used in the 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen. While utilizing the same Inchworm melody for his chorus, Momus sings, “O willow tree, willow tree/The pattern of my life is killing me.” He manages to reference the English fable/promotional tale behind Thomas Minton’s china pattern while also tearing the mask from a fairy tale writer (from what I know of Andersen, he was a rather unhappy, anxious man who fell in love with unattainable people of both sexes).

The next track, “Precocious Young Miss Calloway,” is a skipping melody that would easily find itself in a musical children’s film of the 50s while the lyrics discuss the frustrated, complicated love lives of a series of characters who are perpetually performing. The thunderclown makes a second appearance in the first verse:

While the icicle vendetta might require the blue sombrero
I’d prefer to say the twilight made me don the blue beret
I say, would you mind most awfully if awkward Aubrey Mabersley
Accompanies Melinda to the thunderclown parade?

By marrying the blue imagery with the dark implications of the name Melinda (and vaguely connoting Aubrey Beardsley), Momus has set up a slightly droopy atmosphere of shambling sexual oddities. Placed against the sentimental strains of cinematic violin music, “The Criminal” is a surreal list of similes for the narrator bereft of his lover, including a king without a guillotine and a chair without a brain. Plodding on from the heartbroken wanderings of the grieving narrator in Paris, Momus and Henriksson decelerate even further into “How I Met Your Mother,” which is hypnotic with its dripping globules of sound, feeling like the sonic equivalent of a Saskia Olde Wolbers film. Momus turns the recent past of 90s rave culture into something quaint and archaic, blending the distorted balladry and swirling static with lyrics about arm waving and naming your children after narcotics.

“Baloney Polonius” picks up on the clown/fool theme again by mocking the blustery character from Hamlet, using Marshall McLuhan no less. The music complements the lyrics perfectly, sounding like an early Disney parade song gone awry. Shakespeare’s foolish character is given a suitably bumbling tune that could easily fit a bouncing Tigger or a Pierrot doing a softshoe. The music really starts to stutter and misstep with the pregnant, knowing pauses of “The Teacher,” a song about an educator who may be “letching her students during the lecture” and who becomes a target of a student’s revenge. As the teacher is left behind to her hot-for-teacher hell, the music softly pushes forward to fluidity again. Laden with anaphoric statements about the future from someone who wants to live in the past, “Futura Bold” features some bongos along with vocodered voices mumbling out of a garbled 50s version of the future. Eventually kindly bass arpeggios trundle through looking for imaginary honeypots in a geometric world predicted to be dominated by Bauhaus headlines of modernity.

“We Don’t Have to Make Children” is a jazzier number with a walking bassline and fluttering sax while “Shangri-La” bobs along on a river of entertainment toward death and a Frank Capra paradise, which is, of course, never what it seems. On the final track, “Gibbous Moon,” Momus creates one of my favourite turns of phrase on the album: “Thy nothing will be done.” Against what sounds like the quaver of sawblade and piano arpeggios, Momus proclaims, “I have become the thunderclown,” a bogeyman figure to be dismissed. With its evocation of half in and out of shadow, this song is an appropriate final curtain for this suite of decidedly sour scenarios. Viewing the world from the position of a tired outsider, much like the “Weeping Philosopher” Heraclitus he references, Momus catatonically sings of how the masses distract and anesthetize themselves to get through reality. The weeping philosopher who believes in the contrariness of life or the knowing buffoon performing for unknowing superiors is not far from the mocking deity from whom Momus takes his name.

Momus and Henriksson have produced a fascinating pastiche from the patches that humanity uses to keep the gloom out. This double act has torn these nostalgic illusions to shreds and stitched them back together into a costume that fits even less comfortably or fashionably than it once did. Their record will haunt and follow you like stormy weather or like a clown dragging his feet through the interfering static of the polarized past.

For more info and ordering links, see Momus’s website, and for lyrics and videos for Thunderclown, see

Willow Tree – Momus and John Henriksson

Futura Bold – Momus and John Henriksson

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