The Dears – Halfmast (mp3)
The Dears came into my life during a time that was very transitional for me. Not that there are times in a person’s life that are NOT transitional, this was just one of those times when I was viscerally aware of it. In the midst of various personal losses and the drying of my own creative well, I had grown very tired of music. Radio had gone stale, I was surrounded by people who were mostly obsessed with their nostalgic comforts and I was about to just give up and throw in the towel in regard to many things. The Dears then snuck up on me. Like I’m sure a few others felt at the time (right around when “Lost in the Plot” was getting a lot of airplay and critics were being a little more lazy than usual), I instantly got a very Morrissey/Blur* vibe from The Dears. But then I heard “We Can Have It” and I knew there was so much more to this band than the kind of cheap, lazy references critics reach for at the bottom of their mostly pilfered idea bags. Here was simply an artist who was not afraid to wear some of his influences on his sleeve. But that track struck me, hard. When Murray and the rest sang the words, “you’re not alone” it felt like a warm blanket wrapped around me by a kind stranger after surviving a cinematic disaster/car crash. Like the closing crane shot of a blockbuster disaster film, the camera pulling up into the sky away from my body reclining on a stretcher. It was just what I needed at the moment, and I never forgot. It didn’t promise me the future would be okay, but it comforted me like a friend. Even if we might not all get what we planned for, someone out there would have my back and in the end at least I’d have that. Perhaps that’s an over-share. But oh well. It meant something to me. And when I listen to a Dears album, I can sense that they are at least a little aware of their utility in this regard.
The Dears, for me, are as close as I’ll probably ever get to a musical religious experience. There are few bands out there now that have that certain special something extra (no, not “tracts of land”), an intangible “thing” that you know is there but cannot put a finger on. And their albums are ALBUMS, rather than just collections of songs with some throw-aways added to pad it out. You can tell attention, thought and real consideration was paid to the order of the tracks. This is most obvious immediately on Gang of Losers, and less immediate but still absolutely true with Missiles. You can tell they care about making the kind of album that made them fall in love with music. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but they also achieve the difficult task of seeming both iconic and mysterious yet approachable and like-able. It’s a hard balance, and I can think of no other artists making albums right now that come across that same way. Some come close, sure. Still, no-one does it quite like The Dears. Music itself is so lucky that these people made it through all their struggles to survive and prosper artistically. Now is their time to prosper on all levels. And from what I hear, this next Dears album might be the breakthrough they’ve already earned.
With each new Dears release, my love for them grows exponentially. I have yet to see them live, coming close with a show in SF on the 2008 tour. A show that ended up being a memorable one for those who attended. At that particular show, the power(or rather, the lights?) went off and Murray took the stage for a short acoustic set, lit by flashlight (evidence of which can be viewed HERE and part 2 HERE). I will forever kick myself for missing that one. Towards the end of that second clip I can tell that if I were there, the power coming back on would have been a little bittersweet. Talk about intimacy! When they tour again, I will NOT miss it unless they somehow entirely skip the west coast and northern California. (beg!, plead!, please please! play Sacramento or Davis!! And please play HalfMast live!) Which brings me to the point of this post…
HalfMast (or is it Half-Mast?) continues to blow my mind. How it was left off the album Missiles is beyond me. I originally wrote a long, drawn out description of the song which was over 2000 words and , well, .. was just a drawn-out and pretentious sounding mess. It was to be the first of a planned series involving deep analysis and criticism of single tracks by various bands I love and like. After finishing that first one, I realized I had created a really horrible, long-winded monster that ended up sounding nothing like my voice and far too rock-critic-ey. It might as well have started off with “I have seen the future of rock and roll and its name is…”. Yep, That douchey. (I am not dissing the legacy of Mr Bangs, it worked for HIM) Instead I’ll just describe my first listen and how the song has grown on me, which might just be why it was left off Missiles. See, this is a song that on first listen might not seem right at all. And I don’t mean “not right” as in a Bono-Frank Sinatra duet, I mean “not right” as in the first time people heard Bohemian Rhapsody or Space Oddity on the radio. A good kind of “not right”. Like much of Missiles, it takes attention and repeat listens to reveal its genius. Missiles is one hundred percent a Dears album, absolutely, but it’s different and much more challenging to the listener. A great, striking but off-putting album by first full listen, a classic by the third and perfection by the tenth. By the 11th listen, it’s the best Dears album(so far). Murray Lightburn has called Missiles a blues album, and now I can say rightly so. I agree. Not stylistically as much as spiritually. Existential blues, perhaps. And HalfMast fits right in. The song feels like three songs. Starting with a great drum beat, pummeling the toms, it leads into traditional song form, to a bit of a midsection misdirection they are famous for, featuring the line seen in their (GREAT) documentary “somebody get me a bullet-proof vest, I think I’m running for president” via megaphone, then takes off on another journey into sparse,baritone harmony. And in true Dears form it becomes something entirely different, with the seductive yet distant, almost lamenting (the chant of trauma) “I’ve got the moves… to turn you on” again on what sounds like a megaphone. As it builds, we hear some of the best overlaid guitar solo work in Dears history. In other words, it would have been perfect for Missiles. And I think it’s my duty to “beg and plead” that it be included somewhere on CD, where we can finally hear it in all it’s mostly uncompressed, un-mp3’d glory. Is it? Out there somewhere? On a soundtrack or compilation? (or if not, maybe release in the loss-less FLAC format? I’d pay for that.)
Well, I guess that was still a tiny bit pretentious. But wow, you should have read the other one. (I might have even used that word Dangerbird used, magniloquent) So I’ll shut up now and let you listen for yourself. I think you’ll agree.. they’ve got the moves. (was that cheesy for me to type? Sounds like something a cheesy Top 40 DJ would say.)
The_Dears-Halfmast (right-click, save as) (track posted with direct permission)
*Morrissey is, in my opinion, one of the best lyricists as well as one of the unique voices in pop and rock history. If you grew up listening to him and found your voice took on some of his qualities, I say embrace it. It makes you far more unique than the millions of people who have aped the voices and harmonies of the various Beatles intentionally or otherwise. But as far as BLUR goes, it can be hard to avoid sounding a bit like that if you have a long habit of worshiping brit-pop, as Damon Albarn has embraced the history of the genre in his own voice. Chances are, rather than accuse yourself or others of aping him, it’s far more accurate to just realize he himself is most likely aping that history a bit. And there is the unavoidable fact that he is actually Brit-ish. Having said all that, I feel a bit guilty even mentioning the comparisons again. It’s got to be getting old now. The band has come into its own in a huge way. I just felt like setting the record straight from my own perspective. For what that’s worth.
P.S. – If you read this, please make the next album a double. The world needs larger chunks of Dears. As long as said chunks don’t block out the sun or come crashing down on the planet, making John Cusack drive an RV like a flaming maniac to avoid its debris.