We Were Enchanted

(Plug Research/Shrug Records (vinyl only); 2008)

By Dom Sinacola | 6 February 2008

Kent Lambert is the singer and songwriter for Chicago band Roommate; it would never help to meet Kent Lambert, in person, I mean, to look at him, though by “help” it’s meant that somehow the disconnect between the physical specimen and that desperate, always uncomfortable voice should be a gap to bridge. Because Roommate’s now a band, a kind of pretty cairn built slowly of wonderful Chicago and Midwest musicians on the spot where Kent once played solo, it doesn’t blanche out Lambert’s dominance over each track on We Were Enchanted, how his voice, wreathed in mirror vocal tracks and bristling underhair electronics panned like confetti, still hangs alone and disembodied over the relentless momentum of the album’s long passages. Far from stagnant, his voice is plain far, pale or cold above the vibrant course of violins and organs and bells below; a far cry from the tinny patterns, cold in retrospect, of Roommate’s debut album.

Songs the Animals Taught Us (2005) looking back seems a series of sketches of a man puckered by existential dread, its keen electro-pop unable to steer the dreariness or undergrad malaise of consumerism and wartime frustration towards anything other than a naïve sense of injustice. There were the themes painted in billboard letters, there was “ANTI-WAR” and “CELEBRITY” scrawled officially, sans-serif, over its notes; instruments followed, “KEYTAR” or “MECHANIZED BEAT” announcing the specs of the plan. It sounds harsh maybe, harsher three years ago, but now it’s clear that Kent was meant to be a band leader, to allow his dread to arrive whispered instead of declared, romantic – “Ring-bearer bring another eulogy / Make it short and sweet and pretty, get it right this time” – instead of dead black and idealistic. We Were Enchanted, then, plays out like a promise answered: unease – a punishing, eternal anomie – wrapped and tempered in something safely lush.

Which could make for a dangerous dichotomy, giving each part of each song a steady track to slide down in opposition to the other parts around it, but in fact nothing about We Were Enchanted is straightforward. Over eight songs, forty minutes, and almost no sign of a chorus, the album discovers a brilliant coherence out of seemingly nowhere, out of wandering suites building to unsuspecting, fatter others, overall structure not making much sense until you realize the deal is mostly that of a steady build, of giving and taking with an arsenal of interesting instruments. The title song alone brags about tools like wurlitzers and a super tarana table banjo, a muchla music box, or a “musical” saw. A titular track all the way to the hilt, “We Were Enchanted” is the kitchen sink, a cauldron where scrappy guitars are dragged behind a rhythm struggling with the no-stick coating in the low end or where that musical saw makes for gorgeous banshee fizz at the rim. And then it’s the tub where all the lovely noise spins clockwise (or counter- depending on which side of the world you inhabit), uniformly, into a subterranean stream, pipes clanging to mark the velocity of the current. And there’s Kent calling carefully down the drain first “It’s been happening a lot lately / Just before I wake up, I see the most terrible things” and much later, “It’s been happening a lot lately / Just before I fall asleep, I see the most beautiful things.”

And each song acts that way, elliptical storytelling at its most indulgent. “Way Out” bleats into a vaguely canned samba before Mercedes Landazuri’s banjo blocks the firm push southward; bassoons, violas, and violins exalt “New Steam” to prophetic clarity even when Lambert dwells on general disdain for the modern media. Because he’s actually building a system of symbols and colors as involved (as unnerving) as a David Lynch movie, couching his semiotic ambition with sounds so completely pleased with themselves that a kind of Roman emperor bloat is their only destiny, tossing hubris and fear and disappointed humility into the mix as a common sense confluence of natural disasters and everyday illusion but just giving the whole a trajectory as simple as any pop opus. Put plainly, Roommate has become a band so big and so confident that catharsis can be their only aim. A violin can only realize itself in an epic swell of violins. And then they go and make an album that doesn’t have much catharsis at all, as if they’re admitting they haven’t earned it. That maybe they never will.

So maybe it was fate that Roommate’s cover of the Fall Out Boy song for our Fantasy Podcast would take the bombast of the original and transform it into something so goddamned celestial. I mean, I can’t help but talk in epic swathes about this band, to endlessly compare We Were Enchanted to all of Kent Lambert’s work before, because it’s been an interminable while since I’ve been so pleased by a band, so tickled to the apple core in my stomach by how a group of musicians could alter and hone their compositions into something that is, in every conceivable manner, a gratifying improvement – a fucking solid, fucking tight sharpening – on everything only hinted at before. I’m blushing, I’m addicted, I want more and I want better too. Now that I know I can get what I ask for, I want something slighter, something longer, more hyper-realism. A concept album, Kent?

And Plug Research, how bout Five Curses, huh?