In a Bar, Under the Sea

(Island; 1996)

By Scott Reid | 6 April 2004

Some albums you just remember everything about; the place you bought it, the kind of day you were having, the first time you threw it on and what you were doing the first time it really clicked and left you floored. It's not something that happens often--sure, you probably remember when you bought that Hives CD a few years back, but give it another six or seven--especially as your tastes begin to develop and many of the artists you idolized earlier in your life begin to turn inconsequential and forgotten. I don't remember exactly why I bought the dEUS album; I hadn't heard a note from and it had come as a recommendation from a friend whose tastes I was completely weary of. He had hailed the record as "better than everything Radiohead has ever recorded"; at the time, I was still very much a loyal fan of the group and immediately tossed off his comment as hyperbolic argument-baiting. Yet here I was, in late '99 at what is definitely one of Toronto's largest record stores, Depeche Mode's Construction Time Again in one hand (purely a completist purchase) and a copy of In A Bar, Under the Sea in the other. I put it down, went searching for Robert Wyatt's Shleep (which had come recommended from a more reliable source) and, after realizing that they'd sold out a few months previous and just hadn't bothered to order more in, I went back to the dEUS and decided fuck it, I may as well try this out. So I did. And I fucking hated it. I first put it on that night in my friend's car, and after the short, middling overture, "Fell Off the Floor, Man" kicked in and left us both absolutely dumbfounded; the vocals (two of them, throwing lyrical jabs from each channel), sounding like Mike Patton had he forgotten how to craft a song, were absurd but not nearly as much as the lyrics: "rubbadub a tub fish/ ping pong!/ sneakin' in the dead zone/ boneyard! . . . sippin on a diet coke/ hey dude!" But we persevered. Well, for another few tracks, all of which were drastically different and shitty in their own ways. I think we got as far as "Serpentine" before giving up completely, writing it off ignorantly as "the best that Belgium had to offer" (still usurping K's Choice with relative ease) and opting instead for whatever she had bought. The dEUS went into my backpack and there it stayed for a few weeks, untouched. Best to forget that shit even happened. But eventually it went back on, of course. As is the case with a lot of terrible records I used to buy without having heard anything from it first, I give it a few more chances before completely conceding that I had blown twenty bucks on a piece of shit. So for the second time I put it on, expecting to hate it as much as the first time around, and, not surprisingly, I did. But a few tracks weren't so bad. So a week later I put it on again (I remember it was around this time that I was going through a similar process with Soft Bulletin and, frustrated with it, I went back to the dEUS) and, for no reason, the short overture "I Don't Mind Whatever Happens" made sense and "Fell of the Floor" sounded fucking great. Suddenly, I loved how such a complex song led straight into something as simple and equally compelling as "Opening Night," which would lead into a Soul Coughing-esque track ("Theme From Turnpike") that sounded like the work of a different band yet shifted the record's mood gracefully. It went on like this, track after track -- and so, for the next three weeks, I barely listened to anything else. Little by little, the album began to hit me like a sack of doorknobs: the guitar freak-out that ends the almost poppy "Little Arithmetics," something that would actually later appear on OK Computer's "Electioneering" in a eerily similar way (Colin is reportedly a big fan of the record); the gorgeous lounge jazz of "Nine Threads" and their usual half-joking half-sincere lyrics: "I hope I get old before I die/ Admit it turned out okay for someone who didn't try;" the brief, parasitic pop-punk blast of "Memory of a Festival;" the epic, sweeping structures and arrangements of "Gimme the Heat" and personal favorite "Disappointment In the Sun" that would act as a harbinger of the style Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev would eventually "mature" into (the former of which still maintaining a sense of humour that would be detrimentally absent from Mercury Rev's output); the playful yet downright ingenius arrangement and coy lyrics ("Spastic Sam and Eric Drew make supermarkets superflue") that make "Supermarketsong" unforgettable; the vocal interplay or cacophonic instrumental cadence of "Guilty Pleasures." I really could go on here... But perhaps the album's most incredible statement is the penultimate "Roses," another schizophrenic three chord rock workout that builds its initially anticlimactic chorus through three and a half minutes of wavering, atmospheric guitar bends and Bernard Herrmann-esque orchestral hits before finally assaulting us with the result of its clever restraint. Several sections coalesce into a explosive refrain of "thank you for the roses," blissfully repeating until it suddenly cuts out with Stef's a cappella "thank you." Then a few seconds of silence to and a short, beautifully lax closer, "Wake Me Up Before I Sleep," which develops into something that would fit easily on the upcoming Wilco record. Separated as just fifteen tracks, each of the album's cuts would be incredible, but as a culmination of themes, moods and genres, In A Bar flows and comes together better as well as pretty much any other record I've ever heard, with a few rare exceptions, only slightly hindered by Feldman's production--which, while still undeniably great, sometimes feels a little too slick for the unconventional music being presented. And though the slightly more serious follow-up, Ideal Crash, would follow in a similarly brilliant style, it lacks a certain spark--perhaps the sense of humour than runs like an undercurrent throughout even the songs more serious sounding cuts--that their debut had also lacked. It's something that doesn't make either record any less enjoyable, but just not as awe-inspiring as In A Bar. And now, with the band pretty much over and its members off to their own projects, it remains their most lasting statement. There's just so much that was crafted into the record -- all the slightly awkward lead guitar lines, vocal theatrics, Feldman's unpredictable piano and organ work, the effortless shifting through genres and eras and the perfect mixture of serious experimentation and tongue-in-cheek attitudes -- that makes it have an incredible shelf-life and, despite my initial reaction to it, a sly accessibility--inhabiting enough of the familiar to lull us in before making us realize just how inventive it really is. Like a more ambitious group's run from guitar rock through jazz influences to tasteful electronic tinkering and full-band arrangements, In A Bar runs an entire evolution of its own within its sixty minutes while miraculously never succumbing to levels of pretension that ruin other groups from the get-go. And though the friend that initially recommended this might have won out with hyperbole, its startling that he really wasn't that far off. In A Bar Under the Sea is incomparable, and absolutely indispensable.