Parts & Labor
By Conrad Amenta | 5 August 2011
Perhaps it was sometime during the tour for Mapmaker (2007) that former drummer Chris Weingarten decided he’d leave the band. No big deal: Parts & Labor’s history is one of drummers swapped in and out, a fact as integral to their discography as that now-essential split release Rise, Rise, Rise (2003) with Tyondai Braxton. But this felt different, at least for me, as a person into Parts & Labor because of Mapmaker. It’s still their best, and best-received album. The band’s combination of industrial noise, retro-synths, post-punk rhythms, bombast, and a somewhat unique penchant for arm-swinging, folksy sing-along, culminated on Mapmaker into something torrential, driven, and infectious. Weingarten was a huge part of that, eschewing, in places, the traditional segmentation of songs into their constituent punk parts in favor of complexly repeating polyrhythms.
In other words, Weingarten’s drumming forced the band to expand their vocabulary. Songs suddenly depended on strategic key shifts and dynamic turns. Keyboardist Dan Friel and bassist BJ Warshaw seemed to expend less effort on textures and volume than on cattle-herding those sounds into deliberate and effective explosions of noise. A caustic rock band turned into a band you wanted to dance to. It wasn’t so much a departure as a focusing. The band sounded the same, but more urgent.
Following Weingarten’s exit, one thinks the band might have pondered a return to their noise roots, or even questioned those now-foundational elements of Parts & Labor’s songwriting. This is a prolific band, with seven released in eight years; they seem the perfect candidates for impulsive change. They did release Escapers 2: Grind Pop and Receivers (both 2008), a return to previously explored territory in the case of the former and an unsure pop mixture with new drummer Joe Wong and (and now-departed) guitarist Sarah Lipstate on the latter. If Mapmaker was the sound of the band’s pop dialogue concluded, then what was left to do except change the topic of conversation?
So when Constant Future opens with a complex pattern of tom strikes, I think a fan can be forgiven for fearing the worst. It seems, in those opening moments of “Fake Names,” that Parts & Labor, that band of ever-churning lineups and inexhaustible output, is returning to Mapmaker territory, fertile and treacherous as it is. How will they ever top “Fractured Skies”? But then “Fake Names” shifts, and all of those recognizable elements, like old friends, appear one at a time: the blooping synth; the constant thread of noise in the background; Friel’s everyman mewl; mathy rhythms and big-chorded guitar. Wong still plays it more straightforwardly punk than Weingarten, but what you come to hear is that those essential changes to the songwriting that Weingarten’s drumming facilitated are still intact. What you come to hear in “Fake Names” is a really great opening song.
While Mapmaker is still the band’s best album (in part because it sounds like it was shot out of a cannon), Constant Future, co-produced by Dave Fridmann and recorded “in a former boxing ring,” might be Parts & Labor’s most assured or mature. “Outnumbered” and the title track, like “Fake Names,” are among some of the band’s best songs, and better still, they imply a kind of lockstep with Wong that wasn’t in play with previous drummers. Parts & Labor have always written songs that feel to me as if they’re being pulled in at least three different directions, like the band members are trying to play over one another. Constant Future is perhaps the first of its kind, at least for this band, because of all of the strategic forbearance. Songs like “Echo Chamber” and “Bright White” build and layer textures, place deliberate spaces where the noise was once constant. Except in places where the band’s grand rock gestures translate clumsily—like “Skin and Bones,” which I’m sorry to say sounds kind of like Placebo—Constant Future is a torrid but controlled rock album with lots of interesting, noisy textures. It’s not a dilution of what you’ve come to expect from Parts & Labor, but perhaps the band playing to a songwriting tradition larger than themselves.
All of which to say, I’m glad the band didn’t spend too long over-thinking that left turn. They do what they do exceedingly well, which is why Parts & Labor remain one of the most uncomplicatedly satisfying indie rock bands performing today. Mapmaker is not the box the band tries to play their way out of, only a blueprint being gradually modified, and Parts & Labor have turned what might have been the crippling loss of an essential member into just another development in a long and respectable career.