Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Roam, unless it's got that thing

Late one night last week, while suffering from the effects of sleep deprivation, I caved to my weaker impulses and paid an embarrasing amount of money to order a copy of the single 'Love Trinity', the final studio release from the Greatest Band of All Time, Life Without Buildings. Remarkably, the disc arrived at my apartment not 5 days later, and I found myself holding an item I had always considered a mythical document in my own 2 hands. I rabidly through the CD into my stereo system (my laptop) and hit play.

To put my excitement in perspective, I was only priorly familiar with 'Love Trinity' in its live form as the end to the A side of the incredible Live At The Annandale Hotel album. A very powerful track, I'd always considered it a sort of 'All Apologies' moment for Life Without Buildings frontwoman Sue Tompkins. Over a somber but poignant groove, Tompkins confessed "Don't leave the visual world/ I'm not willing to leave the visual world/ I'm not willing." Considering shortly after that album was recorded, the group disbanded as Tompkins left to pursue her interests in the visual arts, this statement held a lot of gravitas for me. In addition, the live version of the song closed with Tompkins murmuring "It's the end ..." as the music faded out. It has always been one of the most devastating moments in the history of pop music for me, and as such I've always viewed the studio version of 'Love Trinity' as a sort of holy grail, something that would give me a window into the Buildings legend.

As with much of the Buildings' catalogue, the studio version and live version of 'Love Trinity' seem very similar on the surface. Most of the lyrics are the same, and the tune maintains its muscular efficiency and catchiness in both forms. On its own, what sets 'Love Trinity' apart from all other Buildings songs is Tompkins vocal performance: she actually does some singing, rather than her usual spunky, cheerleader shouting. Surprisingly her singing voice turns out to be fairly melodic. She also displays a relatively high degree of lyrical economy, prefering to repeat certain key phrases over and over, instead of providing a steady stream of non-sequiters as in 'The Leanover' model of Buildings songs. As such, the listener is forced to try to figure out what she's trying to get at as she repeats "Roam, unless it's got that thing," and "It's a love trinity". Musically, the song also veers a bit from the usual Buildings blueprint: the opening features that gradual fade in of a throbbing baseline, before the usual beat and rythmic guitar riff drop in. Midway through there's also a sudden breakdown, with guitarist Robert Johnson performing probably the closest thing to a solo the band ever released. The passage is effectively melancholy, and leads into Tompkins cooing her "Roam ..." line a few more times as the song fades out. The song fits together as a beautiful whole, and fits easily in alongside the best songs of the Buildings' limited catalogue.

The single also contains 2 b-sides: 'Is Is and the IRS,' a studio outtake from the Any Other City sessions, and 'Daylighting,' which was included as a bonus on the US release City. The former appeared as the false climax on Annandale Hotel, and was a rousing, high energy moment in the live setting, with Tompkins responding to the crowd's malaise over the end of the show with a sudden "1 2 3 4!" The outtake is unpolished and a much more low key affair. The song has solid groove, but suffers from the slight, underwhelming production value that plagued parts of City. Additionally, its lyrics are remarkably bizarre and inscrutable, even by Buildings standards. All this adds up for one of the weaker songs in the Buildings canon, although it is still a fun and infectious track. 'Daylighting' comes out much better as bookend to this single than it did tacked on after 'Sorrow' on the original album. Both songs are relatively slow and quiet, which made it hard to appreciate the charms of the later track. Here it is something of a revelation: soft and bittersweet, affording another possible glimpse into the soul of Ms. Tompkins, who coos "I left you, I left you/ When we were young, when you were mine," before pleading to be "Taken to das kino." For superfans like myself, each line from Tompkins lips is worthy of over-analysis, because that is all Buildings left us with.

What's most interesting about the 'Love Trinity' single as a whole are the new directions it suggested for the band. 'Daylighting' and 'Trinity' were both slow numbers that improved upon the two ballads from the City LP, 'Envoys' and 'Sorrow.' Additionally, both displayed a lyrical directness that, while still opaque relative to just about any other band, suggest Tompkins was improving on her ability to use the sounds and imagery evoked by unrelated words to convey a particular emotional state. It is very difficult to imagine how Buildings might have evolved as a band, given the pared down signature sound of their debut. It's easy to speculate that they folded in the face of pressure to improve upon a formula that they had essentially already perfected. I however prefer to listen to the words of Sue Tompkins, and trust that artistic wanderlust was the true cause for her departure.

In all, I'm glad I made the absurd purchase, even though my Buildings thirst will never be completely quenched. Unless maybe I can get my hands on a copy of the original 'Leanover' single ... 

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