Music therapy on the anniversary of awfulness: The Rails’ “Other People”

Has it only been a year? It feels like a century. There’s a Reductress satire headlined, “Why I’m Preparing for the Anniversary of Trump’s Victory by Rolling Myself Up in a Rug and Dying in There.” Oh, such a tempting option! But the tiny flicker of optimism that hasn’t yet been beaten down tells me that a better way to mark this obscene milestone is by denying our doll-handed pretender the satisfaction of our despair. So I’m going to spend the day practicing defiance through positive action, and humbly suggest that you do the same. Volunteer in your community. Join a voter registration drive. Do a small kindness. Walk in a park. Talk to people. Take a break from Twitter. Listen to music.

I’ll make that last suggestion even more specific. Listen to “Other People,” the exquisitely angry and spot-on second album by the Rails. The married British folk duo (Kami Thompson and James Walbourne) recorded this record in Nashville, and it perfectly captures the mood of the past year, all upheaval and bad juju, shattered unity and evil bastards smirking their way to power. “Troubled times and devil bones/ There’s a fork in the road,” Thompson sings in the first and last line of the album’s final track. This is a record haunted by Trump and Brexit; hearing it for the first time was like finding an ally and a friend.

The record opens with “The Cally,” Walbourne’s harmonium-driven slow march that conjures the working-class neighborhood of Caledonia Road in the ’60s, when “them big old towers, they shot up fast and left us looking skyward.” Later, on the track “Brick and Mortar,” we see that march of progress continuing throughout London in present-day, and what a betrayal of the working-class it all turned out to be.

With ferocious fuzzed-out guitar and a snapping snare drum beat halfway between a New Orleans funeral procession and a Celtic march, “Brick and Mortar” sneers at deep-pocketed “sharks and lions” gobbling up neighborhoods whole, driving out working people, artists and the poor in favor of luxury flats and bullet trains to the suburbs: “And every piece of track is another stab in the back/ They’re tearing up old London’s brick and mortar.” (The song is specific to London, but it feels like San Francisco to me.) The themes of displacement and a broken country in disarray are there again on Kami’s heartbreaking “Leaving the Land” and that ominous finale, “Mansion of Happiness,” in which one of those forks in the road ends up pointing towards an England of  “walking dead,” too suckered in by their screens to see their country stolen out from under their noses.

The record is so thematically cohesive that even the songs that deal with relationships in turmoil (“Late Surrender,” “Drowned in Blue”) or lost souls struggling with their own destructive behavior (“Dark Times,” “Hanging On,” “Shame”) work as metaphors for the bigger picture of things falling apart.

I don’t want to give the impression that this record is a downer. Like Thompson’s Brit-folk royalty parents, Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson and brother Teddy, The Rails are skilled at enrobing the bleakest lyrics in the most rousing Celtic/Americana snap and twang.  Most of all, while “Other People” is not exactly a cheery record, it might give you some comfort to hear your own rage and sadness mirrored in Thompson and Walbourne’s voices.

If you’re nearly tapped out of hope that justice and good will prevail, listen to the title track, “Other People”; it’s a searing denouncement of the selfishness, cruelty and tribalism encouraged by the Brexit “Leavers” and Trumpism’s “I’m the only one that matters” credo. This song is exactly the affirmation of the power of community we need right now.

Thompson has a dark diamond of a voice dipped in sorrow and shining with intimacy and kinship.  Singing the unsparing, astringent lyrics of  “Other People,”  she does something similar to what Jarvis Cocker did on Pulp’s “Common People,” but in a much sweeter way. She makes you feel like you’re not alone in this upside-down world. She makes you believe that we will eviscerate these assholes together.

“Crazy people, money grabbers, old religion and new regimes/Backstabbers, heartbreakers, psychopaths with evil schemes,” goes the first verse of “Other People,” and as a summation of Trump and Farage and their armies of darkness, you can’t ask for much better than that. Then Walbourne comes in on the deceptively simple chorus, which has a melody that carries a hint of a gospel sway: “There are other people in this world, other people in this world, not just you.”

The first time through the chorus, The Rails are simply confirming the reality that a segment of our fellow humans is willfully devoid of empathy or moral compass. On the second verse, Thompson directly addresses the money grabbers, psychopaths, et al.: “Take the money, steal the candy, rob the blind and kick the dog/Build your palace on a graveyard/ Make believe you’ve done nothing wrong.” After that litany of evil, when Thompson and Walbourne harmonize on the chorus, they sound how many of us feel a lot of the time — like we’re up against an overwhelming force.

But then, something almost miraculous happens. On the last verse, Thompson and Walbourne turn away from the bad guys to sing to the rest of us: “Heard a sad voice, heard it cry/Take me back to better times/ This cold world feels unfamiliar/We’re all strangers in our own time.” And in this context, the chorus is transformed into a message of solidarity and strength, a reminder that we are not alone, that “there are other people in this world” who share our fears and defiance, and in this battle, it’s “not just you.” It’s a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall moment, and it could have been corny, but it isn’t; instead, it’s a brave and heartening anthem for these dark times.

(Other People by The Rails was released in the US June 29, 2018 on ThirtyTigers. It debuted in the UK last fall on Psychonaut Sounds, iTunes, Amazon, and Pledge Music, UK)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

In the rotation: January

The Rails
The Rails (Kami Thompson, James Walbourne)


What I’ve been listening to this month:

The Rails, Fair Warning (Island). I was a latecomer to this debut album, which was released last May but didn’t hit my radar until I saw the married British folk duo’s opening set for Chrissie Hynde in December. The Rails are — no overstatement — Brit-folk royalty: Kami Thompson is the youngest daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson. I guess that makes her husband, James Walbourne, the Kate Middleton commoner in this mix, but his solid journeyman bio includes stints in Son Volt, the Pernice Brothers and the Pretenders. At any rate, the Rails echo the timeless Richard and Linda dynamic — man, woman, existential gloom, romantic doom, a fondness for murder ballads  — without imitating it.

For one thing, they pay a lot of meticulous attention to close harmony, where Thompson’s parents’ never really did;  in the Rails’ hands, a song like the traditional Irish ballad “Bonnie Portmore” becomes a shimmering lost Everly Brothers tune. For another, Linda largely interpreted Richard’s lyrics, but Kami and James are a songwriting team. I’m not sure which one of them is responsible for the lyrics on the the title track of Fair Warning, on which Kami sings lead, but she had me at the song’s opening lines: “I’ll be OK soon, there’s a bottle in my hand.”  On stage, Kami is a figure of elegant self-containment, and that apartness comes through on the song’s depiction of loneliness, depression and self-destructiveness. Her gorgeous voice, low, dark and clear, is enough to rip your heart out

Enter Walbourne, singing lead on roiling songs about seafaring rowdies and breaking out of borstal, to brighten the mood. He’s a deft guitarist in the Richard Thompson flashing-fingers mode, and his voice has a little bit of Glenn Tilbrook lightness in it. Walbourne draws out Thompson’s playfulness on “Younger” (about the insurmountable two-year age difference between them) and the final track, “Habit,” which shimmies along like an old-time music hall soft-shoe, the happy couple in lovey-dovey harmony until the masochism of Kami’s sweetly crooned final verse brings you up short: “You got me in the habit of missing you/ Your evil-hearted ways draw me closer still/ Tie me up, teach me to be good …”  The Rails are full of surprises.

Charli XCX, SUCKER (Atlantic). The bratty punk-pop of “Break the Rules” and “London Queen” and the masturbation-positive message of “Body of My Own”(“I can do it better when I’m all alone”) are fun, but hardly original; those songs’ antecedents are ’80s Joan Jett and Cyndi Lauper. Charli XCX’s real strength is her ability to articulate the emotional anarchy of young womanhood without giving any ground to self-doubt or regret. The massive hit “I Love It,” which she wrote but gave to Icona Pop, is a one-girl riot set to music. While Charli might never top that song’s bonfire chorus (“I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs/ I crashed my car into the bridge/ I don’t care, I love it!”), the title track of SUCKER comes awfully close.

This stomping, assertive flip-off of a pop track is an all-purpose comeback to rejection and false-face suck-uppery. Consider the poison arrow of sarcasm in her perfectly snarled reading of the lines, “Oh dear god, do you get me now, do you get me now, oh do you? Wow, you’re awesome.” That’s Johnny Rotten meets the Dowager Countess right there, and I pity the fool who underestimated this electro-pop prodigy enough to have inspired those lines.  Look, you can be 16, you can be 30, you can be an old lady like me, it doesn’t matter, there will always come a point in your life when someone will deeply wrong you, or mansplain to you, or damn your accomplishments with faint praise. At those moments, let Charli be your guide. Toss your snarly mane of hair back (even if it’s imaginary hair, go ahead and toss it), plant a platform wedge on their throat (metaphorically, or not) and shout, from the diaphragm, “Fuck you, sucker!”  A note of caution: On the physical CD of SUCKER, the title track is censored, so that all the “fucks” are bleeped out. But all the swear words on the other tracks are left in. What the fuck?

Sia, “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” videos. Ignore the misreading of the “Elastic Heart” video as pedophiliac by some Twitter idiots. These video interpretations are powerful, beautiful, haunting; they enhance the impact of the primal emotions and the wild, sometimes ugly behavior laid down in the lyrics. In the video for “Chandelier,” a wrenching confessional about Sia’s alcoholism, 12-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler stands in for the singer in a platinum wig and a flesh-colored leotard. The girl literally bounces off the walls of a depressing, grungy apartment in choreography by Ryan Heffington that startlingly mixes tribal moves, ballet, disturbing facial tics (mouth stretched wide to mouth lyrics, fingers popping open one eyelid) and jerking arm and leg motions. Ziegler looks like a doll in the process of breaking apart. Does she represent Sia’s inner self under the influence? Is she a manifestation of her soul, struggling to save itself?  It’s open to interpretation.

In “Elastic Heart,” Ziegler returns, her leotard now covered in dirt, to engage in a savage cage fight/dance with an older male, played by a leotarded Shia LeBoeuf. There is nothing sexual in their contact. This is a difficult relationship, maybe father-daughter, maybe a battle between aspects of Sia’s self, in which neither side finds triumph or peace. It’s shattering to watch, but it’s hard to look away.

Last year, Sia performed “Chandelier” on Ellen with her back to the audience and Ziegler dancing front and center. For her performances of “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” on the January 17 Saturday Night Live, Sia’s face was covered by a black veil that jutted out like a visor from under her platinum bangs. On “Elastic Heart,” she stood sideways at the microphone, away from the audience, while Ziegler and an older female dancer, both in flesh-colored leotards and Sia wigs, danced-fought around her. The presence of the older female dancer made the warring-selves interpretation much clearer than it is in the LeBeouf video. “Chandelier” was a letdown, though; still veiled, Sia faced the audience, but with a male mime by her side doing a sad clown routine. Seriously, nobody needs to see a mime doing a sad clown routine.

Predictably, Sia’s veiled face launched a thousand Tweets, with complaints like “distraction,” “gimmick” and “Lady Gaga copycat” tossed into the ether. But I’m fine with Sia performing behind a veil or with her back turned while ceding the spotlight to her dancers; it’s a staging that’s almost Samuel Beckett-like in its deliberate confounding of viewers’ expectations about the relationship between performer and audience. By not commanding our attention on her face, Sia is giving us a rare thing in this age where style is everything — the freedom to really focus on her words and voice and to meditate on the painful, ambiguous visions the dancers conjure.

Franz Ferdinand, Live at the Roundhouse, London 2014 ( Why isn’t this cool and clever Glasgow quartet more appreciated as one of the finest bands working today? I saw their buoyant show when it hit Oakland last year and my mind was blown (also my eardrums, thanks guys) by the sheer number of perfect, thoughtfully-constructed, singable, danceable songs they’ve recorded in their 10-year+ career. I mean, I could listen to “Take Me Out” every day and not tire of its grandly dramatic intro and cunning riff, but there’s so much more. There’s “Michael,” and “Dark of the Matinee,” and “Walk Away,” and “Do You Want To,” and “Can’t Stop Feeling,” and “Bullet” and on and on and on, all of it built to last. Am I the only one who thinks that, in terms of songwriting mastery, they’re the Beatles of their day? Probably. But, yeah. I bought this official boot to confirm my memory that Franz Ferdinand was one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen (non-Springsteen division). It did not disappoint.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015