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Toasting the Immoralists
By Alec Hanley Bemis
Tom Carlyon, Hugo Cran, and Conrad Standish formed Devastations in Melbourne, Australia in 2002, but left the continent several years back, and currently reside in whichever European city will host them – mostly Berlin or, when they can’t avoid it, London city proper. (“L’Undone” as they say in their own unique coinage.) But more on that later…
The group has released two previous records, each weighing in at a well-balanced ten tracks. 2003’s self-titled debut won them a following in Europe, and that’s where they created 2005’s Coal, an album that raised their profile considerably both home and abroad. Nominated for the Australian Music Prize (AMP), it put them in contention with esteemed countrymen like the Go-Betweens, the Drones, Ben Lee, and Wolfmother. The record went on to receive praise in such antipodal press outlets as Uncut (four stars), Pitchfork (7.5 rating), and Q Magazine (“cultdom seems assured; more may follow”). Magnet called it “one of 2006’s most dramatic dark turns,” naming the group to the class of 2007 in their annual “Who’s next” round-up. Meanwhile, the band mounted their first major tours of the United States and Europe, capping off a year of non-stop activity with a triumphant appearance this April at the Dirty Three-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England.
Finally, Coal earned the musicians a place at Beggars Banquet. Yes, U—the first album recorded for the label—marks a striking evolution. Previous records have been praised for their gothic detailing and subtle use of instrumental coloration (harmonium, Optigan, rhythm box, keyboards, strings, et. al). Devastations earned a reputation as well-refined miserablists and classic-minded balladeers, specialists in the sub-genre known as orch-pop. This was a mixed blessing. Unlike the artists to whom they were compared, Devastations’ songs were not intended as weepers, and their arrangements did not fill up every nook and cranny with suffocating detail. Rather, they were particularly notable for their use of space and careful construction. The noir moods did not seem like a plea for sympathy, or an indicator of depression, but a glimmer of how one might find salvation.
But enough about the past…
The band that greets us on Yes, U have sloughed off their previous history, and landed upon a path to the future. Recorded in Berlin with Jeremy Glover and mixed in New York City with Chris Coady (Blonde Redhead, TV on the Radio), it still hints at spiritual predecessors like Serge Gainsbourg and the Velvet Underground—urbane artists who reveled in the life of the metropolis, with all its glamorous, grimy, and sensuous details. But it also brings to mind thornier cosmopolitans such as Suicide, Scott Walker, and Yoko Ono —deep thinkers all, each noted for creating treacherous sonic environments and tangible, physical sounds.
Please, though, do not confuse Devastations for a trio of unreconstructed avant-gardists. Yes, U doles out two spoonfuls of sugar for every dose of medicine. If the band’s iPods are to be trusted, their third album also marks the emergence of a counter-sensibility inspired by Grace Jones, Italo-Disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder, and some of his more obscure followers. (It also points to the input of associate band members, Andrea Lee and HTRK’s Nigel Yang. Both contributed all manner of sounds to the album— and Nigel was part of Devastations’ touring unit while this album was being conceived.) The sound is sexual, but not as we’ve come to think of the word—an immodest thing beholden to the corporeal self. Yes, U is more fragile than that. It’s sex as a way of being, a state of grace. Electrified rhythms beat out a bit slower than the human heart, as if the whole point were to remind you that you still had one. The songs are muggy with sweat. At heart, Yes, U is a fashionable discotheque festooned with enough ideas to kindle the fires of the mind.
Once again, Devastations are notable for the strong presence of not one but two main songwriters, Tom Carlyon (guitar, vocals), and Conrad Standish (bass, vocals). Here Conrad and Tom each get their own anthem in a pair of songs—“Rosa” & “The Pest” – which make up the album’s emotional core.
“Rosa,” sung by Conrad, stands out for it’s lovely vocal details: the way he sucks at his teeth in the middle of the verse, the blood curdling scream right before the chorus explodes. These are moments so stark, so full of intention, they sound like Joseph Conrad’s proverbial “horror” caught on audiotape. (Listen in at 2 minutes, 39 seconds to be precise.) Tom’s showcase, “The Pest,” is architecturally spare yet dense in emotion, the sonic equivalent of dark matter: woozy rhythms and throbbing bass are punctuated by his wending, sclerotic guitar lines.
There are other emotions on display — the cinematic moods of “As Sparks Fly Upward” conjure Mediterranean vacations and wide open spaces; “Mistakes” is an unexpected pop song matching a funk vamp to Tom’s squalling guitars; “Face of Love” is a high stakes ballad with a “sha-la-la” chorus that’d do Phil Spector proud. The album closes with an instrumental, “Misericordia,” whose muzzy synths bring to mind the outsized drama of Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone.
Occasionally some words stick out and make you do a double take. “I’m so interested in life,” sings Tom with a languidity that belies the lyric. Would anyone seriously consider the alternative? Are Devastations immoralists? Well, yes, this is music to go out to. It might inspire you to do bad things. But you will be held responsible on the morning after.
Too many songs have been written about breaking free into city life, about discovering the open road. Sure, Yes, U brings to mind the alluring vacuity of glamour, the pain of withdrawn affections, and the sound of absence. But Devastations are as much about the departure as they are about The Return. Perhaps Yes, U is what happens in between…
Raise a glass with them, to the redemptive power of love…
Alec Hanley Bemis is a writer and band friend who operates the Brassland music label.