By Mabel Suen
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By Allison Babka
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With a Bang: It starts with bright, raw guitar tones: a jolt. Then downbeat toms, a tribal call, and the bass line enters carrying the melody. That's how With a Bang, the new Blind Eyes album, opens, by drawing you to the present, to the exact moment that's happening and nothing else. And Seth Porter starts singing: "I took a moment to asses what had been happening/and it was staggering how much I'd missed."
Into the Breach: On more than one occasion, Porter has described the new album as less bouncy than the band's 2009 debut, Modernity. More running, perhaps, and less skipping. Generally it's true, but track two is a song for which the only appropriate response is jaunty snapping. It's three-and-a-half minutes long but feels like two. "I think economy is definitely the staple of this band," says Porter. "There's not a lot of fat."
Hermetically Sealed: Let's not discount the quality of the songs, which is high, but some part of this band's success in St. Louis is owed to the charm of its members. Porter is understating things when he says, "I would be surprised if there are a lot of bands around town that are like, 'Those guys are jerks.'" A room with all three (Porter, drummer Matt Picker and bassist Kevin Schneider) tends to be a lively one.
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The songs are lively too, and though the lyrics clearly mean something, the Blind Eyes' general intent has more to do with sound than words. After all, the lyrics come last for this band; for a while this song's only words were "Buuh buh buh baaa." Only later did it become about being hunkered in a metaphorical underground, fighting through emotional layers.
Porter, describing With a Bang, says, "Just about everything on there, eleven out of twelve..."
Picker interjects. "Is a bummer," he says.
Porter ignores him and finishes the thought: "...is pretty uptempo rock & roll or poppy kind of songs."
"Hermetically Sealed" is ultimately optimistic: Lines like "I've got some layers to peel" and "summer is coming soon" situate the narrator within sight of a better day.
Hold Down the Fort: The oldest song on the album works in sort of the opposite way. Inspired by poachers who steal St. Louis' sturdy brick from abandoned buildings and sell it elsewhere, the song draws a satisfying parallel to the fleeing populace.
There's a pride among those who have endured in one way or another, and that's the bulk of "Hold Down the Fort." It is a toast raised to the people making homes in St. Louis, but right at the end, to a room full of glasses triumphantly tipped into mouths, comes the line: "The cure to all your ills/Is headed for the hills."
"One day I was bummed out about St. Louis," says Porter. "And I was like, 'Even the buildings are picking up and leaving.'"
Satisfactory: All three of these guys have been playing music too long to define success by numbers. "Whether we sell a hundred of them on June 11th or ten of them," says Porter of With a Bang, "we still gotta go to work on Monday."
"For me, the goal is, I want to do a good job. In a year or two, when I put on this record, I want to say: 'You know, we did pretty good work on this.'"
Another Last Night: The one song on the album written and sung by Schneider as opposed to Porter comes at the halfway point. He's got a punk past and it shows. It hurries in a way the other tracks don't, and where Porter tends to write contemplative, thought-process lyrics, Schneider delivers hasty conviction: "And I/Never want another last night."
The Nature of the Beast: Long-time fans will know there is no more commonly stated reference point for the Blind Eyes than Elvis Costello. It's less purely pop than that; there is more distortion and not as much naked melody. But Porter is plenty capable of singing a starring role, and he is a knees-to-Jell-O conversion factory on this one. Lovers will know the feeling: "When you look into her eyes/and you can't open your mouth."
Taken Again: There is almost nothing on With a Bang besides what the trio is capable of reproducing live: one guitar, one lead vocal and one backup, a bass and a drum kit. The instruments you hear on the record are all basically live takes — four or five tries and the best one stays.
Still, the album spent a year in Firebrand Studios. The band didn't start out last January with the complete set of songs, and there were details to iron out: lyrics, vocals, a few second guitar lines and two guest appearances from a glockenspiel. This one's made in the little things; the criss-crossing guitar lines on the bridge are worthy of Television.
All She Wrote: It's not exactly a breakup record, but much of With a Bang is about failing and, eventually, failed relationships. If "Taken Again" is the bargaining stage, "All She Wrote" is the arrival at acceptance. "I think sometimes when I get in the mood to write lyrics is when I'm thinking hard about something," says Porter.
Blind Eyes shows are good solid entertainment, but if you spend enough time listening to this album through headphones, you might find yourself feeling a little down.
Look Back and Laugh: The Blind Eyes is a workmanlike band, old enough to have worn through rock clichés years ago in previous projects. That makes the group ideological kindred spirits with the Walkmen, the reigning king of kick-ass pragmatism. The comparison can be found musically, too. Porter, who didn't even own a guitar for the recording of Modernity, spent careful hours finding the right tones for With a Bang. "Look Back and Laugh" opens with a hoarse, claustrophobic, very Walkmen-like guitar line.
"I've played guitar since I was fifteen, and I can't figure all of the chords he's playing," Picker says of Porter. "He's doing these weird chords that only someone who plays piano would think of. But it doesn't sound like that — it just sounds like a normal song."
Here Comes the Dark: With a Bang builds to a looming tension on its penultimate song with discordant melody and nervous lyrics. "Here comes the dark/The pacing is over/This can't go on forever/How long till this is through," goes the chorus.
It's still vague enough for the listener to impose his own meaning. Porter's honesty connects — as Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "The individual voice is the communal voice."
With a Bang isn't just a lyrical improvement over Modernity; there is an overall clarity of vision that carries through each of the twelve tracks on the album. Picker, Porter and Schneider are now more than capable of winning fans who have no personal ties to them. The band opened a Mother's Day show for Ted Leo, who tweeted: "St. Louis, I love you because of how many of you are here at the show and because of how awesome our local bands are..." and then "...I meant YOUR local bands — I didn't mean to stake any claim of ownership! Though if I were a venture capitalist: Blind Eyes!"
Best Times: The most arresting song on the album comes last, bursting out of the uncertainty built over the preceding tracks with oooh-ahhh backing vocals, wide-open guitar and head-bobbing rhythm. Like much of the rest of With a Bang, the title is misleading: "I just hope that someday I'm not saying/That these were all the best times/These were all the best times I had." A little more pessimism to go with your soaring vista of pop magic.
Roll down your windows; summer is here.