The Polyphonic We

Critics were simply flabbergasted by harmonies in 2006, but we all needed them

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TV on the Radio, #2 album
photo: Josh Victor Rothstein
Discussed:
TV on the Radio,
Return to Cookie Mountain, #2
Grizzly Bear, Yellow House, #52
Liars, Drum's Not Dead, #67
My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade, #17
Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way, #20


Brooklyn art rockers TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear, and Liars made the best rock records of the year on accident—as opposed to bands like My Chemical Romance and the Raconteurs, who made them on purpose. Although none of their clanks or squeaks or floaty strums worked in the same way as, like, a couple dudes with guitars do (unless you count the drums on TVOTR's "Wolf Like Me"), somehow they still resonated with critics and seemed as undisputedly "rock" as one of Craig Finn's Born to Pun rants. Yellow House and Drum's Not Dead—along with Be He Me from North Carolina crew Annuals—sounded like they were constructed by gluing together pieces of anti-rock bands and records too unsexy to mention in a press release: Microphones or This Heat or Flowers of Romance or the Residents or the Fugs or the Godz. And speaking of unsexy, the 4AD-reppin' Return to Cookie Mountain was as goth-pop as an Invader Zim tattoo peeking out of the small of your back.

Even the critics who loved these bands had trouble explaining how this noisy mass of avant-gunk somehow gelled into three beautiful records, so everyone latched on to the "harmonies." Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone lobbed the Beach Boys comparison at TVOTR, The Guardian and Dusted said the same about Grizzly Bear, and the conveniently vague adjective "doo-wop" was employed by all. The comparisons aren't notable for their inaccuracy—Cookie Mountain is more like Eno's '70s rock canon and Yellow House is mostly influenced by choral music—but for the fact that there just hasn't been a whole lot of reference points in modern art-rock for this particular animal of singing: huge, triumphant, multi-hued, multi-tracked, rapturous, ubiquitous, unflappable. The actual music theory involved is dodgy and misleading, as they are not always technically "harmonies"—Grizzly Bear do classic three-parters, while TVOTR stack octaves for a distinct vocal steamroll and Liars use multi-tracking methods gleaned from the Residents school of avant-moan.

Spectrum-hogging multi-singer composit-ions like these spent the last two decades in the hands of commercial retro acts like Bon Jovi or Def Leppard, or critical retro acts like Of Montreal and the New Pornographers. So how Cookie Mountain became simply "indescribable" (another common descriptor) is in how the band threw this capital-R Rock trope into a mess of icy-cool non-rock: Tim-Hecker-friendly doom drones, death-putter drum machines, gloom sirens, a soothsaying whistler, clanging metal-on-metal action, and black clouds of lurching fuzz. By tempering their off-putting art-rock apocalyptics with a spoonful of soaring sing-along, they provided an almost too obvious symbol for their message—the search for contentment in dystopia, love in alienation, spirit in the face of a grueling wait for regime change—while simultaneously making the resulting album accessible enough for MTV2. The fact that their "Let the Devil In" sounds like a Boredoms-ified cover of "Who'll Stop the Rain" is probably no mistake.

On their rat-tat-tatting noise-rock "story album" not-a-concept album, Liars pit a character representing self-assurance ("Drum") and a character representing self-doubt ("Mt. Heart Attack") against each other. You don't have to look past the disc's title to know that underneath the unintelligible barbershop wailing and careening war drums, the record is about how the spirit of creative freedom survives anything. Conversely, Grizzly Bear only focus on the internal: restless nights, a fantasy about backstabbing a lover, a lonely child trapped in Colorado. But these diary entries are hardly ever sung alone—no song goes without orgasmic choirs moaning in union. And the second-most-memorable line in an album full of intimate glimpses into dread is the optimistic one: "Chin up/Cheer up/Chin up/Cheer up."

The best rock albums that meant to be the best rock albums got to the same rubble-kicking heights by doing a reverse TVOTR, teaming joyous music with gloomy lyrics. My Chemical Romance got as Night at the Opera over-the-top as they could possibly get without actually opening up a Broadway show for a concept album about—wait for it—dying from cancer ("Baby, I'm just soggy from the chemo/But counting down the days to go"). And the lyrically darker tunes on the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way (the critique of organized religion, the lonesome reflection in an empty house, the one where they try desperately to stand by their man) are also the most sonically ecstatic. Unlike the Brooklyn noisemongers, these are bands where huge harmonies are the rule, not the exception—records where you're supposed to feel like you're relating to a mass of voices. And when the Dixie Chicks sing "Living the lows/Makes the highs that much higher," it's sending the same message as TVOTR's love-during-wartime cry: Thank God none of us are living the lows alone.

 
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