By Dom Sinacola | 24 March 2011
More than half-way through Guilty Rainbow—third full-length from Chicago-based Roommate and their first for nascent local label Antephonic—frontman Kent Lambert posits a strange rhetorical question as if he’s been leading up to it his whole life: “When you’re somebody nobody wants to be around / Where do you go at night?” It’s a wretchedly lonely sentiment knee-deep in a sometimes wretchedly lonely album. The song’s called also called “Snow Globe,” dredging up both shadows of nostalgia and suffocating panic, and as Lambert continues he grows desperate, loses control of his pronouns and syntax while synths and wobbly, meteoric detritus swarm him. “And if you’re someone who wants to be alone / What do you do when you’re not at home? / Where do you go when there are people everywhere you go?”, he begs, like he expects the audience to answer.
No one does, of course, because there’s no one around to answer and no real answer to give, so he regains his composure while the song itself settles, never actually reaching the fever pitch anyone couldn’t be blamed for expecting. Instead, a bass drum thwomps and a humdrum bomb detonates, as Lambert later sighs, “impossibly far away.”
This is how Guilty Rainbow acts, as if catharsis is too good a luxury to waste on something so shallow as pop music. Over and over, Lambert and a host of Chicago musicians (including current tourmates Gillian Lisée, Seth Vanek, Luther Rochester, and Reid Coker) balk at building beautiful cataclysms, preferring instead to watch what they’ve created use up all its energy and fizzle out. For example, static, fuzz, and even banjo inflate “After the Boom,” but the inevitable explosion is circumvented, air exhaled out the song’s back end. Similarly, “My Bad” briefly abandons its squeals and scratches for a euphonic coda, like it’s mimicking its titular apology, but even then the chorus of voices rising above the clatter never really make it out alive.
It’s only during “Ghost Pigeon,” when Lambert’s yelling his confessions into what might as well be the cosmic void of his own soul (“I am stubborn and petty! / I am not ready!”), does he seem to be losing it. Part moment of weakness and part plain ole purgation, the climax to “Ghost Pigeon” isn’t really even where the song breaks. Nothing on Guilty Rainbow breaks, after all; the album is a seething exercise in survivalist restraint, like “Trust No One” manifest as a cold, sad reality of existence. Like the pre-cannibal knowing full well what the Apocalypse holds. Like the cannibal in the post-Apocalyptic wasteland who can only stomach feeding off himself. No, “Ghost Pigeon” is just the gut-churning noise of idealism gone to rust.
Whereas on Lambert’s earlier recordings he approached socio-political concerns a bit too obviously—“New Steam” addressed the degradation of mass media without expressing much delicacy for metaphor; “Don’t Bomb the Moon” was about not bombing the moon—here he’s finally let his deeply held frustrations abstract. In a recent AV Club interview, Lambert, who’s also studied film and creates experimental shorts when he’s not composing meticulous space pop, said, “I feel like what I do is definitely related to social commentary. The last thing I want to be is preachy, though. I don’t want to make overtly political work, even though I’m a highly political person. I grew up in Colorado Springs, which has a heavy military presence and is the evangelical Vatican.”
Guilty Rainbow still seems to be about activism, imperialism, our dying world, and being the activist who insufferably bemoans U.S. imperialist actions all across our dying world, but it feels like it’s about struggling with the grand existential weight of caring in the first place. It’s all in the title, Guilty Rainbow: the shift in perspective required to feel OK about oneself in times like these; something briefly simple and good overshadowed by something eternally difficult and bad… bad like a devastating storm, or war, or heartbreak, or crappy top 40 radio, or an endlessly talented musician seemingly never able to catch a break, or a seemingly endlessly talented musical criticism site that just can’t get its shit together. Guilty Rainbow harnesses everyday grievance and bakes sweet, magnanimous pop music from its evil ohms.
Not that Rainbow is a pessimistic album, just that it’s an oppressively careful one. Sobering, exact, and sometimes downright gloomy, it’s worried to the nub with the hopelessness that accompanies taking the ills of this planet way too personally. While pop contemporaries like Kurt Vile or James Blake or Braids pose next to the Apocalypse, or pull the Apocalypse apart piece by piece, or dry hump the Apocalypse until it purrs—the year’s best so far content with merely reflecting, relatively unstained, the atrophying world around them—Kent Lambert and Co. design rigorously tested bulwarks against the encroaching End of All Things. It’s Lambert’s political idealism rendered sonically: restrained, ordered, fastidious, just. Mannered music.
Which really means that Guilty Rainbow is one of the most rewarding “growers” I’ve come across this year, an album that revels in texture and instrumental glut—from vibraphones to violins, autoharps to Music Easels, key-tars to Game Boys—while terrified of indulging either one. Only in the guise of covers do Roommate flex: here they re-format “The Country With a Smile” by Ned Collette and Guided By Voices’ “Smothered in Hugs.” “Smile,” I’d be remiss to not mention, was recorded as part of CMG’s Decade Covers Podcast, and, in addition to what he’s recorded for previous albums, Lambert has taken on the likes of Red Red Meat, Broadcast, Santogold, and even Fall Out Boy over the years. Lambert is a natural at the unsolicited “remix,” a curator preserving these pieces in amber made of desperation and epic solitude, keeping humanity’s pop art safe against the tide of ephemera sinking popular taste or the corrosive grease congealing in Kurt Vile’s hair.
Lambert’s cover of “Smothered in Hugs” is simply, quietly devastating. He gussies up the original beyond vague recognition, mortaring walls of gracious sound around it, attaching sleigh bells to its slight, ticking beat, but in the end pulling all longing and angst kicking and screaming from its core. Roommate allow the song to reach an intimacy Pollard only hinted at, an intimacy as subtle as two toothbrushes touching bristle to bristle on a bathroom sink, but as messy as the same.
Perhaps the song is too reactionary given the tenor of the preceding cuts, too given to milking the original song’s untapped grandeur. But by this point, in both album and career, Roommate’s earned some room to go big. Guilty Rainbow is a fantastic achievement from a band that’s always had one in them, and as I said before in so many words that I’ll now say again in so many different ones: there is little else more gratifying in being a fan of music than watching a musician, with every successive album, build upon his or her potential in such an exquisite, dedicated way that everything about their music is now a magnificent improvement over what came before. Roommate’s third album is all that. And if I’m allowed any advice regarding the impending Final Days: it’s worth whatever time you have left.