25 April, 2011

The Subways - A Brief History

In order to provide some context into my music preferences, I guess I should provide some insight into the I love the Subways, and it’s an unequivocal love that is a case of “Right band, right time” in every sense.  However, in spite of this, I don’t think that you can write them off just based on this.  In fact, I think that the most important music one will ever hear comes from this alchemy, and this is largely why the Beatles were so important.  But the Subways stand out because they are exactly what music needs at this point, and that’s a young and hungry rock band not afraid to seem a little stupid and trite while searching for its own voice, because when they do find their voice above their influences the band is a rock n’ roll hydra that towers over the accomplishments of their peers. 

The Subways are not an original band in any sense.  Raised on late 80’s/early 90’s alternative rock and grunge, they have a classicist setup:  Billy Lunn is a wiry singer and guitarist, while his brother Josh Morgan bangs on the drums (Lunn took his mother’s maiden name as a way to differentiate himself from his brother, as though playing guitar and writing the songs weren’t enough).  The third element in the equation is perhaps what makes this band so special, and that is Charlotte Cooper.  The bassist in the group, Cooper shared a love of punk-inspired music with Lunn, and soon the pair fell in love and completed the set.  

Cooper’s bass lines are jumpy and gritty, which is a nice complement to the punk chords that Lunn drops into every track.  Morgan’s drums are then able to kick up a beat that alternates between hard and harder; Billy Gillespie of Jesus & Mary Chain he is not, and his passion for the music is ridiculous.  But for my money, there is no sweeter complement to the music than the alternating harsh screaming of Lunn and the airy breeze of Cooper’s vocals.   

My favorite music moment of the past decade is the first song I heard by the Subways, and a perfect introduction to the group’s sonic dynamics and lyricism.  Not consequently, it also begins their debut album.  Lunn begins "I Want to Hear What You Have Got to Say" by quickly strumming a tinny acoustic guitar, and his whine comes out with succinct clarity.

Another day is here and I am still alive/I say these words aloud, they speak from the inside/And every time I see you, you just walk away/Still the world is turning

These aren’t necessarily special, but the track just keeps building from there.  A second chiming guitar figure rings out, and then the band kicks in after his first chorus.  By the time we get to the end of the second verse, where Lunn claims that he will not complain, Morgan is pounding at the skins insistently as Cooper’s bass bangs out a skittering thud.  Again, this is nothing new, and the energy level seems fine.  But then the twist of having Cooper’s vocals turns the song inside out midway through it, and her singing reveals an entirely new side to the song. 

My head is spinning round, and I don’t know what to do/If I’m so happy, I’ve got everything to lose/And every time I see you, I can’t stand to stay/And now it’s always raining, you’re the one to blame

These lyrics are sung from the perspective of the female character, the object of our first singer’s desire, and they reveal an adolescent mistrust of emotions and feelings.  This is genius because we almost never hear dual sides of emotional situations in rock music, where the male perspective has remained largely dominant since its inception.  But Cooper’s cooing vocals place the fault directly at the foot of the narrator, even though he may still be pursuing her, and it is a dark counterpoint to the main thrust of the narrative. 

Finally, we arrive at the climax with the band at the height of its power.  Distorted guitars churn out a simple prechorus set while the drums are linked to the power of the beat.  In a moment that never fails to stand up the hairs on my head, Cooper and Lunn sing the chorus together, alternately breathlessly singing and screaming the lyrics to each other.  It is a powerful earned effect of the track, and it is the third-longest on the album, coming in at a brisk 3:25.  I know it seems like a lot of content given to just one song, but there should be no limit to how much one loves art, and I believe that it’s worth it.  Hear the whole song below:

2005 debut album Young for Eternity has a mission statement that will be familiar to anybody that has ever been a teenager, and that is to make as much noise as possible without alienating the people that care about you.  In this case, the avoidance of alienation is achieved by making an album that is jammed with too many hooks and not enough words to justify a seventh-grade paper.  The lyrics range from puerile to ridiculously languid, and God bless ‘em for that.  When your title track is a thin metaphor for vampirism as a means of partying all night, your band should fall flat on its face.  Good thing that it’s a fantastic track with enough early Foo Fighters energy to burn, and throws out two great riffs in the span of two minutes and eight seconds.  By the end of this track, I knew I was in love with this band.

That energy is pretty much the biggest reason for enjoying the album, and it can be quite infectious.  You don’t show up for the lyrics (“Holiday” – “I know that you will be the one/Who leads me right into the sun”) or the declarations of love (“Rock & Roll Queen” – Ahem, “Be my rock & roll queen”).  You show up to declare that things seem so easy when you’re with the person you love, and to chant a vocal skat riff over chugging guitars.  There was an argument over the truth or sincerity of music when I reviewed the Strokes and Foo Fighters’ new albums, and while I can respect those arguments I don’t think that they quite apply here.  If you want sincerity, it’s all in the delivery, and even if the lyrics don’t make poetic sense they do convey the meaning of being a teenager that is young, in love, and totally unable to speak any slower.  

These teenage years, yeah they don’t last
These teenage lips, they speak too fast

I quite like Young for Eternity, but there is one caveat that must be made: The acoustic numbers are largely atrocious.  Reveling in atmosphere more than actual songs, “Lines of Light” and “She Sun” are throwaway numbers.  What makes “Mary” and “No Goodbyes” good is that the band doesn’t throw away its best asset, which is the power that the band has when they are in lockstep formation with each other.   

Listen to how “With You,” “Oh Yeah,” and “At 1 AM” all have this powerful riff that charges through them.  Listen to the way that “Somewhere” fulfills a grunge promise at the beginning by taking its slow burn and turning it into volcanic singalong fury by the time it ends.  These numbers come from the joy of hearing this band play, and more than any other band I love hearing the minimalistic hooks that get thrown out by this group.  Sheer enjoyment all around. 

For a placeholder album, you could do worse than the acoustic throwaway Live and Acoustic in Magdeburg.  It takes seven songs from Young for Eternity and gives them the acoustic treatment.  While it doesn’t show any reinvention from the band, what it does allow is the display of the passion behind the band.  Really, Lunn’s not a terrible singer when he stops busting through his vocal cords, and Cooper becomes an even more important asset when she shines through the harmony vocals.  Another interesting thing that you notice is just how well Lunn’s songs hold up through a more minimalist treatment.  The band sounds like they have actually written songs to fit the youthful mood that they have created.  While it appears easy, it’s really very complex to encapsulate so much of the teenage experience through song, and only artists like Pete Townshend and Matt Pryor can really capture that period of unease and passion quite well.  Lunn’s writing does that, and the blighted optimism of “No Goodbyes” and “Oh Yeah” gives way to the belief that things will not get any better than this.  While the band is undoubtedly better in loud electric motion, this is a nice reminder of the songcraft under it all. 

But All or Nothing is something else entirely in that it takes what was a fine opening and polishes it into a rowdy crowd-pleaser, at the same time dealing with the fact that the band was in shambles while the album was being constructed.  Lunn’s vocals were in jeopardy due to nodules in his vocal cords, and he required surgery to repair his chords.  Lunn and Cooper also ended their eight-year relationship, which would have destroyed 99% of bands not named Fleetwood Mac.  However, the genius in the group was taking all of this turmoil, getting into a studio, and then recording an album with Butch Vig (producer of band favorite albums Nevermind and Siamese Dream).  

There’s a saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and the same is true of music albums.  However, this album proves the exception to the rule, featuring a picture of a Seventies muscle car flying off a ramp while it explodes in midair.  In other words, right when you pick up the album you already have the mission statement of the band in your hands, and that is to be as awesome as possible.  

The ringing guitar arpeggios of “Girls & Boys,” the rock to pop chorus transformation of “Kalifornia,” the sheer optimism of “Alright,” and the dance because I’m miserable karma of “Shake Shake” all feel right at home under the Gibson SG crunch and slamming beats of the band.  Lunn sounds in fine vocal form on the title track and “Move to Newlyn,” and the wistfulness becomes the band accordingly on “Strawberry Blonde,” where the pain of his breakup with Cooper bubbles to the surface.   

But yet again it’s the electric tracks where the band sounds fittest to form.  Listening to “Turnaround” makes you want to hear even more of the breakdown section in concert, where they absolutely rip it up.  Listening to “Obsession” puts one in the mind of somebody looking for something to give them focus, even at an unhealthy level.  The propulsive power of the group focuses this energy even more, making you scream where Lunn shreds his voice in the breakdown. 

“I Won’t Let You Down” is my favorite Subways track for a reason, and it’s because the band sounds like they own the world.  This is a riff that any band would kill to have, a knockout blast of sheer rock power that is met by the jet engine rush of Morgan’s drums.  Cooper’s bass adds a sexy undertone to it, and her voice during the title proclamation is heartbreaking when you consider that she is singing it back to the person who likely hurt her most of all.  But you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the song, which puts the band into a tight formation during the last chorus before it crunches into the night. 

Really, that’s what music is about to me: Whatever fits the mood and enhances what you are feeling at that point.  It can be an entry point for you, or can propel you to feel whatever you are enjoying that much more.  If the Subways are your entry point into rock music, consider yourself lucky.  Even at their young age, the band displays a staggering ability to put so much power into so few chords and fills. It’s not really minimalist in terms of sonic production, but it is minimal in terms of lyrics and chords used.  I swear that this band only uses six chords throughout their whole discography, but they make those six sound so good they may as well trademark them.  


Eric Lahm said...

Yet another great piece there Mr. Moody!

I will forever be grateful for the day that you dropped this gem in my lap, as The Subways have quickly become one of my favorites.

When I saw that you were posting about them this morning I decided to just play their stuff on repeat while I was at work, and I noticed a trend that I don't think you have touched on. I think this band is still struggling to find its self.

I don't say this in any sort of derogatory way, or to imply that they are lost, however when listening to their stuff, I never really got a sense of "this is a Subways moment".

As you eluded to in your opening, they have certain songs that are almost straight Foo Fighters, but they also have tracks that if you put a gun to my head I would say that they were The Hives or The Strokes, or even some offshoot of Oasis. When you throw in the relatively sub par acoustic tracks on "Young For Eternity", they just seem to be a band hasn't quite figured out what they want out of the music yet other than to ROCK.

This of course is not necessarily a bad thing, when someone says that your lack of direction makes you sound like a combination of The Foo Fighters, The Strokes, & Oasis, you should be relatively stoked. If I were to ask for one thing it would be that they exploit the back and forth between Lunn & Charlotte a bit more, as that could easily be their schtick (and a good schtick at that).

But to say that any of this takes away from the band would be an injustice, as they feel like the most fresh and complete package that I can remember in some time. I'm just curious as to where they're going to take it from here.

Last note, Lunn & Charlotte's vocals are unbelievable and should be retired in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame right now...

Moodicarus said...

Thanks again for getting the word out there, Eric, and the band has been in rotation with me for five years since Young for Eternity. I cannot recommend seeing them live enough because they throw a stellar show. But the whole aspect of musical identity is one that fascinates me, and I'm hopeful and reluctant to see this band find their groove. I do think that the exploitation of the male/female vocal dichotomy is their biggest strength. However, seeking out Butch Vig to produce their album is definitely a sign of wearing their influences on their sleeves.

This is interesting, and should be a topic for future discussions. Back to listening to the harmony vocals on "I Want to Hear What You Have Got to Say."

W.D. said...

This was a bit of a trip down memory lane from the first time you introduced me to this band. I'll be honest, though I like The Subways I wouldn't say they are one of my favorites. On the "Young For Eternity" album, none of the tracks (other than "Oh Yeah") really caught my attention enough to warrant repeating the song over and over and (you get the idea).

This changed when I first heard "I Won't Let You Down" though. After listening to the tracks on YouTube before the actual release, I found that their new album brought a drastic change in my view of them from before. From my point of view, they brought a more powerful and soulful collection of songs to the table this time.

What can I say? Compared to you and some of the other commenters on the blog, I can't provide very thorough descriptions of my view on the bands...but at the very least I'll be honest about the music I hear. :)