The Lights at the End of the Tunnel
Seattle Post-Punk Pathfinders
w/the Joggers, Dutch Flats Fri Sept 12, Crocodile, 9 pm, $7.
There are bands as two-dimensional as the stripes dividing lanes on the freeway--repetitive and flat, functional for straight acceleration from their influences to their interpretations of those idols, with no side roads of inspiration. And then there are musicians who are prismlike with their predecessors, offering multidimensional inroads to their sonic spectrums. The Lights--along with their equally adept peers A-Frames, the Intelligence, and Pyramids--are helping contribute to the latter breed of directional inventiveness, and they've recently really hit their stride.
The Lights' long-awaited debut LP, Beautiful Bird (Bop Tart Records), offers eclectic rock nuggets nestled between the bars of their post-punk constructions. Songs like "Hawaii" and "Train" are showered with glints of lo-fi, Slanted and Enchanted-era Pavement, but with lyrics more slacker than cerebral as guitarist/singer Craig Chambers deadpans in the chorus for the former: "This is not an order, and this is not a line, this is just the way that I breathe when it's summertime."
In a way, the Lights are like a public-school version of Pavement. Chambers' laconic delivery--a standard throughout the album--is less an arrogantly self-aware Stephen Malkmus than a narrator with a dry delivery. A minimal, precise rhythm section backs him, with steadied, mechanical drums, and bass lines that rumble like a distant thunder that never breaks into storm.
There are wisps of other bygone bands drifting though Bird--the Fall's dreary, a-melodic punctuations and jarring moments of vibrating noise; Wire's off-kilter arrangements and clinical drone; the Animals' garagey, jazzy drumming and mixed vocal trajectories; and Joy Division's wintry effects. There are also shades of the modern age, like the Strokes-esque hooks of the band's current KEXP single, "Your Boyfriend Has a Pretty Machine."
The more I listen to Bird, the more I want to spend weeks with the Lights' record collection researching where the album--four years in the making, from the writing of "Victims of the Pleasure of the Sense of Hearing" until now--came from. A trip to drummer PJ Rogalski's Capitol Hill apartment offers no easy answers. As I drank with Rogalski, Chambers, and bassist Jeff Albertson on a recent weeknight, the various stereo selections made multiple genre crossings--starting with Yellowman and ending up with Oakland hiphop artist why?, our conversation was soundtracked by everything from Can's awesome, tripped-out Tago Mago to the Left Coast, the nascent form of the trio (then a four-piece) when they lived in Boise in the mid-'90s.
Inspired by adventurous bands like Caustic Resin, the Left Coast's songs were heavy on muddy, brick 'n' mortar epics: "We were a really droney, kinda stoney rock band," says Chambers as the old band's seven-inch punctuates his point in the background.
Adds Albertson, "Definitely. We'd have really long six- and seven-minute jams."
"When we moved into a house together," says Chambers, "I remember making a conscious effort to not all play at once. We really tried to strip it down just to the bare essentials." To do this, the band got rid of all their pedals, stopped playing on top of each other, and went for a much starker, spacious, and artistically controlled sound when they moved to Seattle in 1998 and became the Lights. "[With the Left Coast] we were just pushing too hard. Like if you couldn't hear stuff you'd just turn it up more and then the next person would turn it up more and then we'd all be like, 'Let's rock harder,' and it turned into a mishmash," says Chambers.
Cut down to a trio, they ended up "listening to each other's sounds," says Rogalski. "Not playing over each other but playing against each other."
The Lights spent their first two years in Seattle fine-tuning their sound and rarely playing out, instead practicing in a warehouse from midnight until 4:00 a.m. every morning, creating their own musical cocoon of sorts.
"You have to be careful what's making you make your decisions," says Chambers (who is also one-half of Pyramids). "Is it because you want to impress somebody or is it because you think it works? It's something you always have to battle with because styles change and scenes change and it's like, 'Oh, should we try to be more like this and then people will like us?'"
The Lights emerged from a private, sound-searching state to playing out more heavily in the past year, which has allowed the thoughtfully constructed and infinitely catchy Bird to be released to the public. Now, instead of being a Caustic Resin clone, the trio have songs like "Ice Course," a jangling, lonesome post-punk epic with tin-can guitar sounds and a winsome baritone from Chambers, and "Righteous Anchor," a song that slowly simmers in minimal bass before kick-starting with light percussion. The album is a testament both to the strength of the current Seattle post-punk world and to a band who took their time caring nothing about what was going on around them, emerging as one of this city's top eclectic-sounding talents.