Cities in Search of a Heart
Originally published at Apathy & Exhaustion
Sometimes you find things that you never had any intention of looking for. New York band The Movielife are such an example for me. Having ignored them during their initial run, they’ve just put out a brand new album, Cities in Search of a Heart, on Rise Records, and it is really rather good. How exactly had I missed them before? The answer is entertainingly detailed.
At the time of their last release in 2003 my complicated love-hate relationship with the U.S. was in an early stage. (Also in its early stages was my developing skill of using music reviews to self-discover and express distaste for all that is fucked with the world, a practice with which I am still comfortable. You think this is about the tunes?) The attack on Iraq threw us all into baffled revulsion at both our own government and the omnipresent “senior partner” across the ocean. Alien and ridiculous as their beliefs appeared, right on our doorstep were examples of cultural encroachment that -- while obviously less urgent a situation than an unprovoked invasion that ruined the lives of millions -- cut deep with a feeling that we were being had, and paying to be had at that. Even then I also knew however, that, in part due to such Americanisation, you’d have to be a dying breed of ale-soaked, Bernard-Manning-loving Englishman to not admire some aspect of American fare (at least until that brand of ale was bought out by Anheuser-Busch and the proceeds from unsuspecting patrons used to start a new line of “authentic” hard root beers, or some such shite).
In this context comes the act in question. “Movie” is an inviting but stupid term, one that I have steadfastly refused to adopt, and thankfully everyone seems to understand the word film without hesitation. The Movielife therefore was a name that I probably couldn’t separate from cinema-stuffed depictions of spoiled American teenagers acting like dickheads (this whole history works pretty nicely for the not-bad Say Anything as well, regardless of the source materials occasional lefty economics). Combine that with their release artwork comprised of Hollywood stars, Las Vegas excess-glitz and whitebread suburbia, and I never gave them a second thought. I may have loved super-American sub-genres like skate punk and Midwest emo, but the line had to be drawn somewhere. Also to be considered is that to be a teenage music fan is to live through a glorious time of discovering more good music from many decades than you can even comprehend. Only later will you be glad that you missed some stuff.
But I’m now older and wiser, and presumably so are these blokes. And since packaging still matters, I’m happy to say they made a much better first impression on me this time. The artwork is very American, but respectably American (photo taken by Jani Zubkovs, bassist of Caspian). The image shows piles of half-processed logs with no one around to finish the job, sitting under a vastly bigger and faintly darkening sky. It acknowledges some of the contradictions at the core of this nation-state (and others). How can a city be at peace if its continual growth relies on the further destruction of its surroundings? If the heart of the community comes to be based on what is whittled from this daily grinding, and that work goes away due to necessity or resource exhaustion or mere greed, how do we rebuild meaningful lives from that? These are defining conversations. Nobody right-thinking wants a Dead Industrial Atmosphere.
These various themes are subtly alluded to throughout the album. The title is a line from “Mercy is Asleep at the Wheel,” the first single. The lyrics are delivered slow, steadily and purposefully. When the vocals step back (or get loud at the songs closure), the whistling feedback and dense guitar mix remind of rocky shoegaze act My Vitriol, and some others from the harder edge of UK alternative. Other than that, the reference points are mostly quintessentially yank - as you might expect, and not bad ones either. What follows is a wide range of comparisons that a) shows the breadth of styles on Cities in Search of a Heart, and b) reveals some of the bands that I was kind enough to give a stinking chance to as a youth.
Most consistently, I found myself thinking of Only Crime. Singer Vinnie Caruana just sounds like modern era Russ Rankin (also of Good Riddance), and The Movielife seem fans of a good dose of heavy melody. The most stark example is on the track “Blood Moon,” where the whole trajectory of ups and downs, guitars and vocal inflections, sounds like a Virulence B-side. Vying for position though are The Ataris and Alkaline Trio, in the sense that the overall tone is one where melancholy vibes meet an upbeat and driven emotional punk rhythm. “Pour Two Glasses” is a classy piece of string music reminiscent of The Get Up Kids’ On a Wire, if that had been a better album at least. The opening of “Sister Saint Monica” is nothing if not classic Weezer.
Despite all this admirable company and my baseless concerns as a youngster, Caruana does have the kind of voice that could easily veer into irking, American-on-a-chalkboard territory (research provided by an old cover of the Descendents’ “Thank You”). Doubtless tempered by age, his somewhat high, New York delivery is also smoothed out by an echoey vocal mix and instrumental envelopment. This works marvelously on the likes of “Lake Superior,” which has a broad sound worthy of a stunning natural wonder before it gets chopped to pieces.
While there are a couple of tracks that are clearly romantic (“You’re the Cure,” “Pour Two Glasses”), generally the songs are of the reflective, open-to-interpretation nature. I don’t imagine everyone will get the same socio-environmental read on Cities as a swamp-dwelling Swampy like me, but there’s a case to be made that it’s there. “Laugh Ourselves to Death” for example is a brilliant song that ends with its hands in the air in a big, apocalyptic shriek of absurdity. Lines like “the world is a pile of shit in the summer sun,” and “we’re gonna die exploding in a ball of fire,” come alongside calls for retreating into the comfort of our private lives. The narrative and anguish made me think of a documentary I recently watched: the philosophical, dramatic and occasionally boldly honest How to Let Go of the World and Love all the Things Climate Can’t Change. And then it made me think of Network.
Studying this album (searching it, let’s say), I kept coming back to my struggle with the significant conflict between seeking out answers and sinking meaningful roots; between exploring and Euro-centric, entitled destruction. “You’re the Cure” ends in brief airport lobby tones, where people hug desperately and backpackers take mental notes while partaking in the most extreme and damaging transport that we have devised. There are a number of these Ataris-style clips throughout the record, small moments of movement and love that are quiet and brief like a humble, light footed traveller. The aforementioned single is a driving metaphor where three trains are neglected in favour of the illusion of control.
I’d like to be permitted a couple more comparisons in order to discuss the incredible closer “Hearts.” This track is a small epic from the deep, dark American countryside, a heartlands campfire somehow reminiscent of the King Crimson-inspired “M62 Song” by Doves, with sombre guitar and subtle background clinks from Texas is the Reason. “Please don't call it protest, call it humanity,” because we can’t afford to leave anyone out of this conversation. This band from the North American London (zoo) clearly have been looking far and wide for the heart they desire. The album ends with the sound of a door opening and a person going inside. Maybe going home, having found something that resembles one.
I may have been unfair to the band’s book cover appearance all these years [gee, ya think?]. Their 2003 record was called Forty Hour Train Back to Penn; their artwork might have been a bit gaudily shit, but it indicated a physical search; the “moving” life. If high-speed, long distance travel has its demographic constrictions and problems, we’re lucky that movies and music can be amazingly informative devices when they reach for the heart of the matter. With an efficient and clean ten tracks The Movielife have converted me into a fan. While I am still currently wary of giving their old material a try, I could conclude that the younger me, righteous as he was in many things, was also misguided. It’s nice to be surprised. Perhaps especially by Americans.
The band has a UK tour in November: https://twitter.com/BrandonReilly/status/920987221339058176
You can hear Cities in Search of a Heart here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzoeX0jBht0&list=PLKcGEIO7V0rUDm2KJnTgPKSpN9IdKyOY5