Monday, April 21, 2014

Dead or Alive?

Here are two albums that came out today:

The one on the right is Goodbye, Cagoule World by Benjamin Shaw; the one on the left is I'm Dead by Glimmermen, a band from Dublin. The former is the latest offering from the consistently intriguing Audio Antihero label, while the latter was sent to me in an email by somebody who thought I might appreciate it. I'm Dead actually seems to have been available for some time, but I'm told that today marks the album's proper UK release.

You might be wondering why I've lumped these two albums together instead of reviewing them individually, and it's because they land on either side of the same divide. Cagoule World is a sickly-sounding album about being alive; I'm Dead is a lively-sounding album about being dead. And so I thought it would be fun to examine them side-by-side.

Benjamin Shaw comes across as being rather tired on his album. "Always with the drama, and always with the fucking dreams", he sings on Always with the Drama, shortly before the song becomes a mess of fuzz and found sounds. It's not entirely clear what the advice about working in an office is supposed to signify, but the cheery voice that recites it is entirely at odds with the creaky-groany atmosphere that permeates the record as a whole.

Lyrics about being fed up and "not long for this world" suggest that Ben Shaw's protagonist is very much on his last legs, and this feeling of decay is fleshed out by a small orchestra of weezing synthesisers and tinny drum machines, all of which sound like they're on their last legs too. By the final furlong, Shaw lacks the strength to even lift his pen and write some proper lyrics:

"Here's a line about The System, and here's a line that quite funny, and here's a pop-culture reference."
- You & Me

The title is another clue: 'Goodbye, Cagoule World' sounds like both a suicide note and a comment on the damp, grey world that the note's author is leaving behind. All in all, this album is the perfect soundtrack for crawling under a blanket and dying (although some of the songs are catchier than that description might suggest - You & Me, the song quoted above, is a particular highlight, with a lovely little hook that sounds like it was lifted from an Au Revoir Simone song).

Now, the Glimmermen album is the polar opposite of Ben Shaw's effort. If Cagoule World is a death rattle, then I'm Dead is the sound of life after death, and nobody's resting in peace here. The sound is lean and punchy, and scarcely a note goes to waste (this in stark contrast to the queasy soundscapes found on Cagoule World). The opening track finds our hero six feet under from the very beginning, but even as the maggots hatch in his head, he's still singing along to an upbeat ska-funk groove, albeit a rather angular one.

My favourite track, though, is This Town, perhaps the album's most heartfelt moment. While guitars jangle, the head Glimmerman sings about finding himself alone in some sort of ghost town:

"This town is dead. Feel like I'm in a cheap cartoon - nobody bothered drawing any other characters."

The album, in spite of its brisk pace, has a kind of 'after the end' vibe to it, and This Town is a perfect crystallisation of that - is this town the afterlife? Is the man still alive in some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape? Or is he just somewhere very dull?

The answer isn't clear, but that's the fun of both these LPs. The meanings seem to lie in the overall mood rather than in individual lyrics; Benjamin Shaw is a misanthropic indie kid at death's door, while the Glimmermen dude is a zombie or - as the album cover would suggest - a living skeleton, exploring what it means to be deceased and desperately meandering towards Peace at Last.

Both albums are rather good, albeit in very different ways. Here's where you can find them:

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