too much typing—since 2003



I'm Eighties Boy again today it seems: when I pick out CDs for the car or for work, often I'll just randomly grab from the collection and bring what I find (unless I'm just not in the mood for it). So it was that I pulled out Against All Flags by Tirez Tirez, from 1988. I discovered this band from a review of their previous album Social Responsibility (which I never did find), I think in Option magazine or something. Anyway, Tirez Tirez (which supposedly is what the guy instructing the French Foreign Legionnaires to execute somebody might yell, not a band with an auto-parts fetish and a malfunctioning spellchecker) was primarily one guy, Mikel Rouse (speaking of malfunctioning spellcheckers), who began the band as one of the late seventies' hordes of Talking Heads imitators, but who then went to music school and decided it would be more fun to cram as many tricky musical devices as possible into tuneful little songs that sound pretty much like normal pop songs to everyone except other music geeks. Rouse has gone on to a moderately successful composing career (here's his website) in that musically fruitful but audience-impoverished realm where rock and classical, post-minimalist musical devices coexist.

"When Pilots Came" is fairly typical of the songs on Against All Flags, its surface tunefulness underwritten by a complex lattice of polyrhythms (I think you can hear the influence of both Talking Heads and Steve Reich-style minimalism). The effect for me is to give the verses a sort of restless feeling (that's probably from the 5/8 phrases) while the choruses, with their more regular movement (you might almost think you're in 4/4 for a while...) contrast with and resolve the feel of the verses.

"See the Living" is maybe a little less ostentatious in its trickiness, being built as it is around a couple of fairly typical rock rhythm structures (they're even in 4/4, for real!). However, as it's the last track on the CD, by the time the second part of the verse comes around, you're so used to Rouse's shifting structures that you actually expect the accents to shift into some other time signature...and when they don't (yet), that's actually as surprising as the other songs' restless rhythmic patterns. Instead, leading into the chorus itself, Rouse throws in a bit of Bulgarian vocal harmony (in intervals of major and minor seconds) as lead-in to the chorus which...ah, there we go: five bars of 5/4, with the 4/4 vocal pattern (doodle-a doo do-doodle) running underneath it in counterpoint. Perhaps because there's so much else going on, it takes a while to notice that Rouse seldom writes bridges: his songs stick pretty much to verse/chorus, with variations for introductions and fade-outs.

As an attempt to be musically tricky within a pop framework, Rouse succeeds almost too well - in that the surface smoothness of the songs, including his voice, almost makes the songs sound far more disposably simple than they are. This is similar to the way Steely Dan's chart success in the early '70s blinded a lot of folks to how tricky - and amusing - their songs were, as if they were writing songs for the teenyboppers. But then the '70s was a weird time, in which actually being able to write a song, with a melody, chords, and dynamic structure, was considered essential to charting a track - and so long as a song fit in with that traditionalist definition of a pop song, its authors stood a chance of being convicted, in the Court of Hip, of Selling Out to The Man. Structure was rigid, boring, and uncool, man - twenty-minute freeform drum solos are where it's at. Anyway. (Steely Dan had the last laugh: "you think we're old and boring before our time, tools of the system? Ha: now we're bringing in a bunch of old jazz dudes wearing natty suits, bearing saxophones and vibes, who know what the hell a diminished thirteenth chord is." They then disappeared up their own assholes, only to re-emerge a decade later with their now desperately faded retro-hip usable only as stage dressing to ironic indie-films-set-to-music. Ah well.)

Okay, it's clear I just want to ramble endlessly rather than bring this to a conclusion, but instead I'll just stop. There.

Tirez Tirez "When Pilots Came"
Tirez Tirez "See the Living"

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