Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Flux Capacitor vs. Painted Shut

Last summer, I discovered a wonderful album called Flux Capacitor by a wonderful band called The Burning Hell. Regular readers (if in fact I have any) may remember that I wrote a blog post around that time all about Flux Capacitor and how its characters repeatedly manage to find power in powerlessness.

More recently, I acquired an album called Painted Shut by Hop Along. Those hypothetical regular readers will no doubt have already heard the album's standout track - the spectacular Waitress - in my May playlist, but here it is again for everyone else:


While it managed to escape my attention until only a few weeks ago, Painted Shut actually came out last year. Shortly before its release, Hop Along gave an interview with Stereogum, and Frances Quinlan - owner of that tremendous voice you were hopefully just listening to - stated that the album was "about power and lack's about powerlessness".

I came across that Stereogum interview just the other day (having already had Painted Shut on heavy rotation for a week or two) and Quinlan's description of her album's key theme sent me straight back to Flux Capacitor. Since then, I've been listening to both albums and thinking hard about the different ways that these songs and the characters within them respond to situations that make them feel powerless.

Let's start with the Burning Hell record. The general message of Flux Capacitor seems to be something along the lines of 'hey, it is what it is - you can't change everything, and if you get dealt a bad hand, the best thing to do is just accept it and move on'. Opening track My Name is Mathias, for example, is a rollicking, bouncy exploration of the degree to which our lives are determined by sheer chance, but perhaps the purest crystallisation of Mathias Kom's 'let it go' outlook is Let Things Slip AwayFlux Capacitor's celebratory centrepiece:

Not to mention a close philosophical cousin of Give Up from The Burning Hell's latest album Public Library.

"Sometimes you have to let things slip away" is advice that some of Frances Quinlan's characters could probably stand to heed. The narrator of Waitress froths herself into a panic when somebody with a good reason to despise her comes into her place of work, while the following track (a stripped-back yet full-blooded number entitled Happy to See Me) ends with Quinlan looking forward to a time later in life when all of her friends will be dead and there won't be anyone left, as she visits their graves, to contradict her version of everything that happened to them over the years.

"And when I'm old, I'll only see people from my past, and they will all be happy to see me, we will all remember things the same..."

Now, to be fair, "let things slip away" is a lesson that Painted Shut itself seems to learn by the time its grand finale careens into view. There's a lot going on in Sister Cities (both musically and lyrically), but the song ends with the following verse:

"Honey, you know I had to shoot that dog you loved so much,
You know I had to do it,
Aw, honey, you know I had to shoot that dog you loved so much,
You know I had to do it,"

And then, with her very last line of the record, Quinlan accepts and internalises what she is being told by...I dunno, her dad? 

"Oh yeah, I know you had to shoot that dog I loved so much!
I know you had to do it!"

This is interesting for two reasons: firstly, it mirrors Kings of the Animal Kingdom from Flux Capacitor in using a dog that has to be put down as a symbol of powerlessness, but secondly, it means that Painted Shut concludes by subscribing to a moral in which it actually poked quite a few holes en route to Sister Cities.

Consider the song Powerful Man, a (supposedly true) story about witnessing an act of child abuse and doing nothing about it because, well, the abuser "looked like a powerful man". Is "let things slip away" the right mantra for that situation? Or - let's return to Flux Capacitor - for times when your relationship is failing, as in the gorgeously sad One Works Days, One Works Nights?

Listening to these two albums makes it clear that life will eventually shit on all of us, whether by making us ill, repeatedly sending us back to the places we try to escape, or, um, killing our dogs. What's less clear is how we're supposed to react in those situations - sometimes pacifism and acceptance are the correct response, but there are other times when letting things "slip away" will only leave us with regret and the sense that perhaps we should have done something differently. 

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