Do Make Say Think

You, You're A History in Rust

(Constellation; 2007)

By Joel Elliott | 23 February 2007

The term “Post-rock” -- especially since the mid-‘90s -- may seem incredibly general given the disparate groups that fall under its massive umbrella. Really, though, there are two strands. There are the bands who make music often described as “epic” -- bands that eschew the typical structures and conventions of rock music but maintain its grand gestures. Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, and M83 all share this style: dramatic contrasts and emotional exegesis, typically played out in the form of drawn-out crescendos. Their music hearkens back to the style, if not the form, of classical-influenced progressive rock, tending to fantasy, romance, and expressive imagery. Then there are bands like Tortoise, Stereolab, Cul de Sac, and Gastr del Sol -- bands far more given to eclecticism, a sense of humour, and a closer affinity with jazz, minimalism, avant garde, or electronic music. (It’s a similar split to the one Mark discussed in his last Retconning article on progressive rock.)

Toronto quintet Do Make Say Think straddle this fence. While often lumped in with other post-rock bands that use swelling crescendos, guitars that still sound like guitars, and wall-of-sound production, DMST maintain the sense of playfulness and joie-de-vivre usually reserved for their more avant colleagues. Which is nice, because while most other bands lumped in the “epic” category try (too hard, at times) to mine a certain emotional gravity, DMST are less interested in crafting serious soundtracks for the apocalypse. Instead, they’re scoring sunny afternoons on the farm, hanging your head out the window of a moving pickup truck, and big roasting campfires built to scare away ghosts.

Interestingly, You, You’re a History in Rust, the band’s 5th LP, highlights the limits of both approaches. Thankfully, the album is absent of bombast or pretension, and unlike many of their brethren DMST aren’t afraid of growth or experimentation. The album features their most prominent vocals to date (courtesy of members of Akron/Family and Great Lake Swimmers), acoustic guitars and banjos, and various found sounds. And yet this pragmatic approach is exactly what keeps the album from attaining the heights of their more sonically unified work, particularly & Yet & Yet (2002) and Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn (2003). Those albums succeed on the strength of unusual rhythmic shifts, the interplay between layers of repeated guitar/bass/horn parts, and precise production. On You, You’re a History in Rust the band shoots for rawer sound, but to do that they focus on linear song structures and avoid the complicated but interesting non-sequiturs of previous albums. The result is decidedly mixed. The band seems unsure of what instincts to follow to get more intimate, streamlined rock; their attempts produce a hodgepodge of style that in turns prevents the kind of gut reaction that normally attracts listeners to rock in the first place. Ironically, in attempting to streamline their sound, the band has actually created an album that lacks any overarching aesthetic.

There are, however, a few standout moments. “Bound to Be That Way” is a strong opening; it starts with faint rhythm, piano chords, and soft woodwinds and then shifts abruptly as both drum kits kick in, lightly-picked guitars playing hypnotic, rhythmic patterns -- a sound which has become the band’s trademark. The two subdued sections of the song show a restraint and tranquil beauty that is rare for the band. When the volume does pick up, the increased pace doesn’t upset this careful balance so much as inhale it whole. A banjo joins the guitar, the two instruments pluck careful patterns that diverge from each other only slightly; each draws the other into itself through magnetic attraction. While sometimes this unity of instrumentation goes unnoticed on their recordings, the track brings to mind their awe-inspiring live shows where it’s often difficult to tell who is making what sound.

Perhaps the strongest track on You, You’re a History in Rust, however, is “A With Living,” which radically departs from anything in the band’s catalogue. While faint vocals have appeared on a few earlier tracks (particularly the beautiful “Soul and Onward” from & Yet & Yet), here they use full-on harmonies, lyrics that are actually decipherable, and an almost-conventional verse-chorus-verse structure. The contributions from Akron/Family, who had already worked with members of DMST on their own Meek Warrior (2006), add considerable strength here, and arguably make the track sound more like their own work than that of DMST. Still, it fits in nicely here, and while the instruments themselves aren’t doing anything outstanding, the skittering drums are a perfect compliment to the chorale voices which sing with utopian languor: “Lying down beneath the stars / Alone at last I rest / Feeling right feels good / But being right is best.” The song climaxes with utter bliss, then moves into a three-minute comedown, where the boys, exhausted, sing wordless harmonies familiar to anyone who’s heard Akron/Family’s self-titled disc. This track is pure euphoric pleasure, and one of the finest songs they’ve put to tape.

Unfortunately, the band doesn’t fare nearly as well on the rest of the album. After two tracks of relatively blissful, atmospheric rock, “The Universe!” comes on with all the subtlety of a ton of bricks. The effect is kind of like watching Days of Heaven on TV and being interrupted by a commercial for some furniture warehouse. The cheaply distorted guitars, which play the crudest riff imaginable, have an obnoxious quality that almost propels the song into the realm of Deerhoof-esque anti-pop, but in the context of the rest of the album it only suggests an identity crisis for the band. As simple horn parts and the band’s typical polyrhythmic flurry kick in, the song loses its potency; it’s an overly amped version of the band’s usual formula.

Other tracks are easier on the ears, but often lacking both the hooks and narrative arc that make the band’s previous work interesting. “A Tender History in Rust” is the band trying out Six Organs of Admittance-type acoustic instrumental folk, but the track doesn’t have enough melody to make up for its lack of sonic density. “Herstory of Glory” is 5 minutes of searching for a climax that doesn’t come, and “You, You’re Awesome,” while featuring some interesting slide-guitar and horn parts, isn’t really given time to develop. These three songs find DMST trying to hone their instrumental strengths into convincing pop songs, but they come off diluted and incomplete.

The album starts to come back together about halfway through “Executioner Blues” where an otherwise simple bass riff is filled in by some tight jazz percussion, elastic guitar bouncing through the empty spaces, until the band giddily drives the song into a cacophony of noise. Distorted vocals take up the refrain on “In Mind,” which finds the band dappling briefly in lo-fi pop to close out the album. While their forays into pop terrain on the album don’t always work, this track and “A With Living” suggest that it’s less a problem of being able to handle pop music so much as balancing it with their distinct style.

Despite this being relatively new terrain, vocals tend to work really well on You, You’re a History in Rust, perhaps because instrumental rock relies on a considerable amount of complexity to make it interesting -- the same reason the middle portion of the album comes off rather tedious. I can’t imagine that Do Make Say Think will ever imbue their instrumental passages with melodramatic significance, as have other post-rock outfits, particularly because even at their most aggressive, the band just wants to tease your ears rather than trigger your deepest emotions. If this sense of adventure doesn’t always result in great music, hopefully it will at least propel the band to keep exploring new sounds for the future.