You've been outside lately, right? How could you not? Your apartment is fucking hot. And yet 10 minutes ago, everyone was all, "Ugh, Juneuary!" "I always forget about Juneuary!" "Juneuary clouds again!" Now everyone's bursting with happiness, like stems of flowers growing bright new heads.
From the sound of it, the clouds have also cleared on the Intelligence. In the band's earliest stuff, there was an "Are you just trying to annoy me?" level of distortion wrapped around everything, a sonic weather storm worthy of Venus. But as time goes on, the fog of white noise is burning off. It's gotten to the point where frontman Lars Finberg's mom likes some of these songs. He told her, "I think there's like two songs on this you could actually listen to!" And then he played her "Techno Tuesday," the fourth track on Everybody's Got It Easy but Me and the first Intelligence song (ever) with a horn on it. Well, the first proper use of a horn—a horn that gives off that clear-skies, happy-to-be-here horn feeling. Technically, there was a horn on the song "Saint Bartolomeu," two albums ago, but it had so many effects on it, you couldn't tell it was a horn; it was just one sound among many in a hilarious and stressful cyclone.
Anyway, when Finberg's mom heard "Techno Tuesday," she said: "This is you? This is really pretty!"
Pitchfork's review of Everybody is basically glowing ("At once the Intelligence's most lyrically direct and musically exploratory album to date"), although the rating they assign it, no doubt strenuously determined by white guys in lab coats deep inside the Pitchfork First Alert Weather Center for Scientifically Measurable Feelings About Sounds, is a mere 7.5 out of 10—although that's a .2 increase over the last two. Therefore, mathematically, this is the best Intelligence album yet.
"The Intelligence doesn't make a lot of money," Finberg concedes, "so it's a bit stressful." He's been hiding out lately in California, where he has family, playing in Thee Oh Sees and doing other forms of labor to make ends meet (sanding floorboards, tearing out drywall, Sheetrocking stuff). When he went to California, he'd just been through a breakup and planned to "put the band on ice for a while." None of us at The Stranger knew about these plans when we recognized the band with a Genius Award in 2011. Two excellent Intelligence albums had just come out within a year of each other, 2009's Fake Surfers and 2010's Males, and we wanted to shine a big fat spotlight on Finberg's underappreciated skills and insane productivity and wickedly barbed wit and geographically imprinted musical vocabulary. The Intelligence sounds like Seattle—the torrents of noise leavened with West Coast inside jokes and foul-weather fortitude. The Genius Award comes with $5,000, no strings attached*, and it "definitely felt like a huge thumbs-up from God at a kinda stressful, dark time for the band," Finberg says.
Thumbs-up from the sky notwithstanding, Finberg, 38, has had to work 20 years of excruciating side jobs to record the kind of music he hears in his mind. But tired's a good look on geniuses. A minute and a half into Everybody, Finberg says, like the tiredest person of all time, "Ladies and gentlemen, the band." This comes right after what sounds like a 45-second musical stutter, or the drawn-out tick-tock of a metronome, or like the gears of some gigantic clock—a sound he plunked out on a Casio drum machine and then put through a delay pedal. He counts along with it: "1... 2... 3... 4..." By the time he gets to "29... 30... 31..." it feels like we're going to be in this rut forever. Did something break? Is there a scratch in the record? Is he somehow trapped in this beat he's created? At "44," he stops—for no other reason, he explained to me, than "it turns out that the drum machine stops at 44." The gag is sort of like the excruciating 39 lashes thing in Jesus Christ Superstar, but a lot funnier and a little longer. And no one dies at the end. Quite the opposite: The band comes alive. Finberg short-circuits the rut he's made by inviting other people in.
Feeling financially trapped, feeling romantically trapped, feeling trapped by units of time, being cut off from options, the anxiety attack inside a tin can—this feeling, however you want to describe it, is Finberg's coal. He just shoves the coal into the furnace of his musical imagination and comes up with song after song after song. "Dim Limelights" captures the monotonous trap of critical success coupled with poor-to-middling moneymaking. "Return to Foam" is about a really pretty trap called the Pacific Northwest: "Down up here in the Pacific Northworst/There's no bubble, so there's nothing to burst." "Reading and Writing About Partying" has to be a dig at all the Pitchforks and Strangers of the world—the trap a review or an interview can lay for a musician. (Side note: Could someone please remember to play "Reading and Writing About Partying" at my funeral?) To say nothing of the trap of loving someone who doesn't love you the way you want them to: "Now I'm with someone new/And she is even worse than you," Finberg sings—hold on to your hats—while playing an acoustic guitar on the last song, "Fidelity." After the acoustic, all-by-himself first half, a chorus of girls sings golden, familiar-sounding "Ahs!" as the sun sets on the album. Why do they sound so familiar? I wrung the secret out of Finberg: They're just like the "Ahs!" backing Elton John's voice in "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," of all unexpected references. If every other Intelligence song so far began to feel like it fit too neatly into the garage-rock-shaped cookie cutter, didn't you kind of guess Finberg was going to find some way to jump out of the lines?
By the way, don't overlook "I'm Closed," a mid-tempo song sandwiched between higher-energy jams that glimmers with Finberg's completely unpretentious literary knack. "I live in a plastic bag/Where nothing's ever sad/But it's miserable," he sings, to pull out just one example of the language traps in his garden of double negatives. Then, right after singing about being "at the bottom of the sea," a vibraphone is added to the musical mix, changing one chord from an A-minor to an A and giving everything a UFO vibe—launching you, mentally, in opposite directions.
That's just what albums that spring from one man's mind are usually like when a bunch of other musicians put on the instruments. But we'll see! Leslie Ishino is on drums, Susanna Welbourne is on keys, and Dave Hernandez is on guitar—this band has chops. Whatever happens, a great new rock record is a cause for celebrating. Stop reading and just go.
*Shout-out to this year's Genius Awards presenting sponsor, Snoqualmie Tobacco & Liquor, which is continuing to make such awards possible.