Monday, 28 July 2014

album review: radiator hospital - torch song

The best bands make you wish you wrote their songs. Radiator Hospital is one of those bands. 
With album artwork by Phoebe Harris, guest vocals by the Crutchfields and Maryn Jones, and instrumental features by Kyle Gilbride and Keith Spencer, they prove it also takes a village to craft a timeless album.

The way Sam Cook-Parrot writes is theatrical. The same emotional heft in a silent film starlet's eyes is in his songs. The first Radiator Hospital song that broke my heart was Our Song. This album feels like a continuation on that story, only now the stakes are much higher.

In a way Torch Song is the follow up to 2013's Something Wild, but it's hard to say with a band this prolific. There were two more releases between last July's Something Wild and Torch Song, but both heavily featured covers and demos of songs that wound up as more realized versions on this album.

TS opens with Leather and Lace; high energy, quick paced, and true to RadHos' form. Sam ends the song with an impressive vocal run in vein of Something Wild's Ghost Story.

Contemporary DIY heavy hitters are all over this album. It's reminiscent of early 2000s Saddle Creek scene camaraderie in that many of the same names pop up on each other's albums. The first guest appearance on Torch Song is Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield. If Sam were Conor Oberst, then Katie would be Jenny Lewis.

Leather and Lace spills into Blue Gown, which is equally frantic. Katie Crutchfield sings an unusual and arresting melody, while Kyle Gilbride contributes a hooky guitar solo.

"I'm yours but not by name."

Cut Your Bangs gives Pavement a run for their money as far as catchy songs about cutting your hair go. The bass line keeps the song dancing forward like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.

"When you lie to me it's in the small stuff."

The Eye has an almost world music feel to it. I think I might even hear some claves in there? Again, it's very cinematic. I could see a string section recreating it for a Disney movie.

Venus of the Avenue, however, might be the epitomic theatrical song on this album. It paints a portrait of two boys in utter adoration of someone. "Mikey and Jon" sit at a piano and pine over the object of affection with nervous excitement. It perfectly illustrates the kind of frightened love only fanatics can relate to. It reminds me of a song you'd hear when someone in a movie realizes they're in love with the sleeper hit. (see: the Julia Gulia vs. Mrs. Robbie Hart scene in the Wedding Singer)

"We didn’t think that you could find us just from the songs that we sing."

Fellow Swearin member, Keith Spencer plays guitar on 181935, which makes that 3/4 of Swearin appearing in the first half of the album. Where's Allison?*

The only lull in the album is on Five and Dime. It's not a bad song at all, just less memorable than the flawless first six, which is an impressive streak. Perhaps this song's placement is for the best. It contrasts the starkness of Fireworks and makes it pop as a standout track on the album. Maryn Jones of All Dogs takes on sole vocal duties this time, a position Allison Crutchfield took on Are You Feeling Me? from Something Wild. Maryn sings in a weakened whimper, which is unlike the vocal work she does in her own band. Sam too takes on this defeated slur of speech in a couple of songs. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I wouldn't put such perfectly subtle choices past this band. These songs tell stories, and they tell them well.

Bedtime Story feels like the first track of Side B. It walks you away from the emotional rubble that Fireworks left you in. The slamming on the guitar between verses gives you hope. It's the friend that buys you drinks and lets you crash with them after a gnarly heartbreak.

"I just wasn't bred to sleep alone."

I'm All Right. Shit. The emotions are back. God damnit.

"I don't know if you got my letter. I don't know if your cheeks got redder."

I'm guessing the female vocals on Honeymoon Phase are Cynthia Schemmer, and they're gorgeous. It seems as though this song is about a different girl. A girl who isn't as exciting, but is still lovable and probably healthier to love. This is the first song with a hint of optimism. The clouds have just begun to part.

Sleeping House is minimal and electronic. The fire's gone out, but the embers are still there.
The guitar solo in Just May Be the One is the water on those embers.
While I'm flying off the rails with metaphors, I'll say if Fireworks is a knife in your heart, Fireworks (Reprise) twists that knife. Sam responds to the female voice in Fireworks with some different words and in a lower register. His own point of view. He is remorseful, but not entirely apologetic. It takes two after all.

"A little spark doesn't mean you're the only one."

The softer moments on this album are equal parts Pinkerton and Paul Baribeau, who also hails from Michigan. It has the innocence of the Modern Lovers and probably the self-assuredness of some other great musician I'm unfamiliar with. Sam is a fan, and he wears it on his sleeve. On the Radiator Hospital bandcamp page there is a notation on Venus of the Avenue saying that it was partially inspired by Mink DeVille's Venus of Avenue D.

*Here's Allison! She sings the choruses with Sam on the otherwise spoken word type closing track, Midnight Song. It's a celebratory end that says, "We made it."

Torch Song closes nicely, leaving all loose ends tied up. The end is satisfying, like a movie where you know the good guy is gonna be ok. Here's hoping Sam's next muse doesn't do him in, cause the world needs these songs.

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