About six months ago, I interviewed
the Washington, D.C. band Beauty Pill in a theater in the Arlington, Virginia museum/gallery Artisphere where they were recording their next album, as part of an exhibit called Immersive Ideal
. On Sunday, I went back to Artisphere for the second phase of the installation, in which you listen to the album in the room in which it was recorded, in gorgeous surround sound, while manipulating three projection screens of photos from the recording sessions (one of which is framed by the same 'control room window' rectangle seen in the above picture of bandleader Chad Clark that I snapped during the July interview).
There is probably no other album I've anticipated more the past few years than the new Beauty Pill, although of course the long wait (almost 8 years since the band's last album, over 5 since the last new song surfaced online) factors into that, as it inevitably does in matters of anticipation. But a lot of that is because I'd long thought Chad Clark was really on the cusp of some really great and fascinating things, both musically and lyrically, that I wanted so much to see realized. And what I heard on Sunday was very close to what I'd hoped for, as well as many other things I didn't expect at all.
The exhibit was open for less than 2 hours on the final day of the installation, and I stayed there as long as I could, listening to the whole cycle on display (7 songs totaling under 40 minutes) three times. Clark has said the band plan on releasing two full albums this year, and that about 20 songs were worked on in the Artisphere sessions. It'd been mentioned on Twitter that "Ann The Word,"
the song that had been released on the band's MySpace in demo form in 2006 and effectively marks the beginning of the current era of Beauty Pill, was in the Immersive Ideal
rotation, but I didn't hear it on Sunday. I don't know if what I did hear is the first album or a smattering from both albums or something else entirely. I don't even know what to call it -- I'll refer to the collection of songs I heard on Sunday as Immersive Ideal
since Drew Doucette told me in July that that was one of the potential album titles and they've given it no other name since then, but who knows, really. Whatever it was I heard, I can't wait to own it and play it anytime I want, even if it will never sound as ridiculous and beautiful as it did in surround sound that day. If what I heard is
an album, it'd certainly be a very early candidate for my favorite album of 2012. The fact that my trip to hear to the album ended up with lots of complications* just made the whole thing feel more like a pilgrimage, the listening experience being an island of calm in a stressful day.
The first song on the album is "Afrikaner Barista," which was released online
a few days ago, before the end of the installation, making it only the second new song Beauty Pill have released to the public since 2004. Since I knew I was going to hear the whole album soon, I resisted listening to the MP3 until afterward. Reaction to the song on the internet has been appropriately enthusiastic, but let me just say this: you really have no
idea how good this stuff sounded in that room in Artisphere, sitting in the middle of four towering speakers. It's quite good on stereo headphones, the song itself and the general texture of the production come through, but it's just not so amazingly alive (the Soundcloud page amusingly and fittingly lists songwriting credits as: song (charcoal sketch) by chad clark, music (mural) by beauty pill
). Sitting there, it occurred to me how absurd it is that most of us only get a surround sound experience like that when watching an action movie in a theater (or a rich friend's living room or whatever), very rarely is that technology actually used to listen to music. That made it all the more exhilarating to hear not just any music at all that way but a new album, by a relatively unknown band that ordinarily would never get the opportunity to present or even hear their music in that way. Apparently there's talk now of taking the surround sound presentation of the songs to other cities, which if that happens I would of course heartily recommend anyone checking out, regardless of whether you're familiar with the band or not.
"Afrikaner Barista" opens with the sound of a spinning metal bowl, whirring for a moment and then snapping into a crisp kick/snare beat, which is soon joined by a secondary drum pattern, and soon a swarm of melodic textures, many of them warped and bent, darting in and out of view. This sets the stage pretty well for the dominant sonic signatures of the album: fluttering backmasked guitar, multiple drummers locking into playful polyrhtyms (or Devin Ocampo surrounding a thumping loop with jazzy accents), and a water bowl that once belonged to Chad Clark's late dog Lucy, who inspired the song "Dog With Rabbit In Mouth, Unharmed." That was the song Beauty Pill was working on the day I visited them in the studio, and I actually didn't recognize it right away on Sunday, since so much had been added to the skeleton (Clark's loop with Devin Ocampo and Basla Andolsun playing guitar and bass over it) that I'd heard six months earlier. "Dog" is also the only song I heard in at Immersive Ideal
featuring lead vocals by Jean Cook, the member of Beauty Pill who joined after their previous album and sang lead on "Ann The Word"; all other lead vocals were by Clark.
One song called "Drapetomania!" featured no vocals at all in its incarnation at Immersive Ideal
-- it's the song the band talked about mutating into a cartoonish "Fat Albert" theme song-like variation in my Splice Today interview, which apparently will be released in its original arrangement with lyrics on one of the albums. And the only reason I knew which song it was, honestly, was because Clark had mentioned on Twitter that it'd be played as an instrumental in Immersive Ideal
-- I didn't recognize it as the absurd, strangely funky thing he'd described in the interview because it wasn't actually any more surreal or unusual than most of the other songs it was surrounded by. Try to imagine the creative zone that would lead a person to single out a song as totally crazy without even realizing how crazy everything else they've made sounds by the same standard. So much of the charm of these songs is in how the more audacious arranging or producing ends up too visceral to be inaccessible, too inviting to be indulgent, too fun to be pretentious.
I first heard Chad Clark’s previous band, Smart Went Crazy, in 1998, on a school trip when a friend who apparently knew a member of the band (I still have no idea who) lent me their first album, 1995’s Now We’re Even
. I returned home, excited to learn more about this band and hear more, but after searching around on the internet (which was of course a bit harder to do usefully back then than it is now), I learned that they had just broken up, having only recorded one other album, 1997’s Con Art
. Like any short-lived band, especially one that disbanded within months of their crowning achievement, Smart Went Crazy left behind a lot of curious new fans who never got to see the band live, including me, which translated to a large amount of free-floating anticipation from whatever would come next eventually, which turned out to be Beauty Pill.
Beauty Pill debuted in 2001 with The Cigarette Girl From The Future
, the kind of EP that announces a band to the world with a tantalizingly small amount of music, and none more followed for over two years. First, another EP, 2003's You Are Right To Be Afraid
, followed, and then finally the full-length album, 2004's The Unsustainable Lifestyle
. Some of the initial interest around the band seemed to have dissipated by the time of those later releases, and these days Chad Clark himself seems to speak of Cigarette Girl
as the release he's most proud of, implicitly agreeing with the consensus that perhaps The Unsustainable Lifestyle
was a disappointment or a creative failure on some level. But I really grew to love that album, as muted and difficult to get a handle on as it often is, over the last few years that it remained the band's most recent release, and came to see it as a huge step forward in Clark's development as a lyricist.
When you hear a contemporary musician's records in the order they were made in released, whether at the time or after the fact, I think you really get a deeper sense of their artistic progression, because your understanding of them keeps changing. On Now We're Even
, Clark seemed like a clever, sarcastic guy who was good at writing vengeful 'sugar in your gas tank' breakup songs, with some occasional gestures toward more literary or impressionistic writing styles. On Con Art
, that style intensified and became darker, still very much an angsty breakup record, but one with a lot more wit and intelligence than most of the ones being made by guitar bands in the '90s.
presented, along with a sleeker, more groove-driven sound, a slightly more detached and conceptual approach to lyrics for Clark, while maintaining a consistent thread in the overall tone and approach to humor and narrative, and introducing the female vocal foil as a key component of the Beauty Pill sound (Jean Cook is the third member of the band to operate as female vocalist). But it was on The Unsustainable Lifestyle
that I really think Clark hit upon a rich vein, looking out into the world more, at drug mules and dictators and assassins and racists, in addition to the more commonplace children and lifeguards and whimsical or Satan as movie studio executive or fantastical cigarette girls from the future that also populated his songs. It really felt like this guy was looking at a much larger cross section of the world we live in, and with real empathy and humanity, in addition to gallows humor and clever lyrical conceits that still abounded, than any other songwriters you might think of as his contemporaries.
That playful and sarcastic but also very humane and soulful way of looking at the world is all over the Immersive Ideal
songs, particularly "Steven And Tiwonge," which as Clark told me in our interview, is named for the real life gay couple in Malawi who were arrested and nearly imprisoned for 25 years simply as a consequence of their relationship. The song itself, though is a totally apolitical narrative that uses the situation as a jumping-off point to examine how the different opinions and reactions of two people have to be reconciled or grappled with when those two people are in love, especially then that love itself is being challenged or forced out of existence. Another song about an actor, or at least a metaphorical actor (the only song whose title I don't know) [EDIT: this song is called "For Pretend"], uses an unreliable narrator device to first try to make dark things seem lighter or more innocent to a child, before the whole thing just gets darker and more confusingly warped.
Chad Clark has also mastered one of my favorite lyrical techniques, which is to turn a phrase slightly, from one verse to the next or from one chorus to the next, so that each time it comes back it's in a different tense, or referring to a different thing or person, or means the opposite of what it meant the first time. At least once I wrote down a lyric I especially liked, only to realize the next time the song played that it was a subtle variation on an earlier line, which wouldn't be done justice if quoted out of context. "Near Miss Stories" and "Steven And Tiwonge," in particular, do this really well, as does the one song whose title I'm not sure of (the one about the actor) [EDIT: again, it's called "For Pretend"].
"Near Miss Stories," the only song to acknowledge Clark's life-threatening viral cardiomyopathy that temporarily sidelined the band a few years ago, literally only could have been written after the events that inspired it. But it also contains (probably unintentional) echoes of his Smart Went Crazy lyrics. The opening vignette about seeing a car driving haphazardly on the road immediately brought to mind Con Art
's "A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce," while the phrase "you have to laugh," used to deflate tension in a song that contemplates death, goes back to Now We're Even
's closing song, "Gold Star." He's always let little flashes of joy and humor and optimism peek through his more morbid lyrics, and here it feels more earned, more sincere than it ever has before.
is an album full of rubber and metal, things that bend and wobble and warp, not just in the texture of the manipulated samples and found sounds and instruments (called 'treatments' in Beauty Pill liner notes), but in the way the rhythms and melodies often seem to lurch in seasick cadences. The surround sound especially made it feel like a psychedelic experience, with the Hendrix-via-De La Soul production aesthetic letting all these little difficult-to-identify sounds wheedle around like curious little windup toys. It's a record that sometimes flirts with becoming danceable, but more often than not is content to nervously bump and clang around in a way that's somehow more compelling than repellent. I halfheartedly attempted to write down some notes while listening to the album, and during "Ain't No Jury In The World Gonna Convict You, Baby," I wrote down two words about what I found the most sonically exhilarating song of the whole set: "disorienting" and "favorite."
* Quickly the story of what happened on Sunday when I went to Arlington on Sunday: I drove around to a sidestreet near Artisphere, where I'd found street parking when I was there in July. No spots were open, but there was a parking garage with its doors open, no attendant or ticket-taking machine, and a sign that said "Free parking on Sundays." Tickled by my good luck, I drove right in and parked, and went to Artisphere. When I got back less than 2 hours later, the sign was gone and the garage was completely locked. After about an hour of frantically walked around the building, trying various service phones and trying to get some information about who owned the garage and how to contact them, I finally was told that the garage is kept open on Sunday mornings for a church group, and then closed up shortly after services, and that there was no contact info available for the group or whoever opens up the garage for them, so I'd have to just come back and get my car on Monday morning.
Complicating the above problem was the fact that I'd left my son's carseat in my car, with my wife at home with the baby in Maryland, nearly an hour away, so they wouldn't be able to come pick me up even if I'd asked them. After trying to reach the only people I knew in Arlington to see if I could crash there for the night, I finally gave up after two hours of wandering around in cold, windy January weather and took the Metro back to Maryland, calling my brother-in-law and asking him to pick me up at the Metro and take me home. Obviously, my wife was not thrilled about the predicament I'd gotten myself into, which had nixed some of our Sunday plans. On Monday morning, I got up at 5 a.m., called a cab to take me to the Metro, rode back to Arlington, walked into the garage (open this time but still unattended, strangely enough), and drove my car out without ever paying for parking or being ticketed or even asked how I got in there, and drove back to Maryland, gave my wife the carseat to take our son to school, and then drove further north to Baltimore for a full day of work. That I made this stupid mistake and had to suffer all these consequences in the course of going to hear Immersive Ideal, of course, doesn't make the album/installation at all responsible for my terrible day, it's completely blameless in the affair, but I definitely had dramatic feelings of "suffering for my love of music" that day.