Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Telling Stories, Feeling Human: Vanilla Swingers

Just over a week ago, I received an email in my inbox from Vanilla Swingers. To be honest, being new to the world of music blogs and not getting many artists contacting me, I almost deleted the message, thinking it was some sex organization for caucasian people. Thankfully, I looked at the subject line a little closer and realized that it wasn't spam, but a message from a UK musical duo called Vanilla Swingers in which they offered me five sample tracks from their self-titled debut album which will come out this May. I was going to wait until I got the album proper before writing anything, but I liked these tracks so much, I figured I'd write about them now. I can always elaborate later when I receive the full album.

Consisting of Anne and Miles, Vanilla Swingers produce delicate, bittersweet music in a style similar to both Stars and Black Box Recorder with undertones of Pet Shop Boys. Their album was recorded with Ian Catt (Saint Etienne, Stars) and mastered by Kramer (Galaxie 500, Low) and it is a concept album that tells "the story of two people who meet, run away, go back in time, lose each other, and meet again in 2015." I can't say I hear too many concept albums these days, and I think this particular idea is an intriguing one for me. And I'll tell you why.

Vanilla Swingers is largely based on John Gray's book Straw Dogs, a piece of philosophy which questions the myth of Humanism and asks why humans believe themselves to be so much more superior to animals when they rarely achieve what they're believed to be capable of. In essence, he turns the myth of human progress on its head. According to an interview done by Rock Sellout, Miles says: "lyrically, besides the story, you might say it’s about the differences between what people actually achieve, what they could achieve and what they believe ‘humanity’ can achieve. The idea of humans being the authors of their own destiny is a powerful myth, probably one that would be difficult to live without. Then there’s a bit of romantic love in there - another myth, if you like, and another one without which things would be pretty bleak. It’s a cliche but I hope it comes across that there’s redemption in beauty and in the whole mess of what it is to be alive and reacting to all the contradictory impulses that make us what we are." So, it appears that Vanilla Swingers sets out to achieve quite a lot while knowing that their very achievement will be another myth. Heady, but brilliant stuff.

I'm hugely impressed by the lyrics of all of the songs, which you can peruse on their Web site. The first song, The Town, of which I only have the lyrics, already grabs my attention and my emotions with its bleak urban/suburban imagery. Echoing Morrissey's apocalyptic seaside town, The Town reads: "There's a cone in the river and a Safeways trolley overturned/By the pre-postmodern business centre someone forgot to burn down." Thankfully, the music lives up to the promise of the lyrics as I listened to the next song, Like Straw Dogs. It obviously namechecks John Gray and Miles' heartbreaking vocals begin the musical dialogue with "All I have is words, words that don't obtain/And I feel I'm a stain on your horizon/So I stay away - it's easier that way/And there won't be no-one I need to rely on" before Anne comes in with "Is it him, is it me/Or is there something only I can see." The strains of a relationship wrought out of myths about identity are felt in every strain of the music and turn of vocal, and hesitant piano blossoms into hard guitars. In a reponse to and as a relief for these tensions, I'll Stay Next To You begins with a crash of thunder, and then drives along to a bassline that mimicks the restless spirit of running away from the terrors and mundanity of reality, which could very well be the same thing. The end of the song echoes that deadpan observational rapping Neil Tennant does in West End Girls before it enters a jamming outro.

A couple of songs later, Danger in the Past begins with a sample from Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love and a host from Top of the Pops - a contrast to the gloom of the present, but also a reminder of the artificiality of romantic love mythmaking and the shiny false promises of the '80's themselves. Then the song kicks in with beautiful hushed vocals by Anne, who is soon joined by Miles in mourning infected hearts and careless memories in a hypnotic, lush melody. For the moody, swaying The Way She Walked Out the Door, Johnny Brown of The Band of Holy Joy steps in with vocals, words and melody, providing an interesting interlude between the lover characters from the other songs and almost acting like a narrator. In the second last song, Goodbye Lennon, against the ticking of a clock and a heartbeat, Anne sings, "It's thirty years since '85/Robbie's dead but Pete's alive/Or so the weblogs say/But no-one's reading them." The mechanics of humanity's progress provide a counterpoint for its very heart as the world continues to lose itself in celebrity myths until it can't be bothered to know anymore. And although everyone's lost in this future, the lovers have lost themselves in each other amidst surging synths and chiming chords. Ultimately, we tell each other and ourselves stories in order to survive as a species.

I'm quite excited about hearing the full album. In the end, somehow Vanilla Swingers still make me believe in love. Even after they've dissected the myth and torn down what it means to be human, I feel more human than ever listening to it.

I'll Stay Next to You - Vanilla Swingers

Danger in the Past - Vanilla Swingers

The Way She Walked Out the Door - Vanilla Swingers

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