Shapes and Sizes

Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner

(Asthmatic Kitty; 2007)

By Mark Abraham | 2 June 2007

I wonder if the host of broken chairs on the cover of Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner is supposed to be emblematic of the insistence itch—a fight against complacency—that the album gives you. Or maybe it’s evoking the junk corner in the garage; this all is a little kitschy in delivery. Most likely, though, the molding of familiar forms into unfamiliar shapes is meant to signify the size of the band’s sound: they’re a rock band, yes, but a rock band that reconfigures “rock” to suit their impulses as they exist in a given moment. Which is why a song like “Geese” can get away with swagging a shitload of hooks without ever really settling into a sweet spot.

Listen to even a few tracks and you’ll find that avoiding resolution is the familiar formula here. People may even accuse the band of subverting their own appeal given how often a wicked moment gives way to, as vocalist Caila Thompson-Hannant suggests in the interlude “Grassy Corner, a Sunset,” “the infinitely abstract.” People may even label this album as “odd,” though it’s worth noting that it’s not the component parts that merit this modifier; it’s the entire brimming exuberant package that ducks and covers whenever something resembling a rock-driven passage surfaces.

For example: the album opens with acoustic guitar-bait and switching number “Alone/Alive,” a song the modifier “flurry” was conceived for, a wild rush of scattershot instrumentation that leads to a call and response vocals featuring Thompson-Hannant v. the rest of her band. It’s as good an example as any of what the band’s formula is: despite the flat out excitement of the first couple of minutes the song switches seamlessly from it’s external expression of being “alive,” marked by explosive synth riffs and a wild bass line, to an internal space inside it’s own head to deliberate on being “alone,” marked by free melodic singing over a rhythm section more interested in texture than form. If you can buy that shift (both conceptually and musically) you can get down with this band, since their success lies in their decision to ignore the cultural and thematic divides between cerebral, in-the-headisms and extrovert bandisms. Or, rather, they ignore it while constantly fore-grounding that they’re ignoring it by constructing songs that mutate from anthemic stompers to insecure musings in the blink of an eye. They do it extremely well, I should note, though I doubt that will convince people predisposed to hating this sort of free form pop composition. Even though it’s not, as I’ve suggested, that free form.

The formula works, I think, because it reflects the way real emotions work. Bullshit hacks like Raine Maida can tell us “we are all innocent” all he wants; that doesn’t change the fact that feeling we are anything is normally as much about being confident as it is about dealing with those insecurities. Thompson-Hannant and fellow vocalist Nathan Gage often speak loudly and brashly, but only as often as we hear their internal deliberations over how they actually feel. Musically, the band follows suit. Witness how “The Taste in My Mouth,” a beautiful collage of banjo and horns, is deft in its approach to dissonance; the “pain” Thompson-Hannant speaks of is secret, and the music’s tendency to fold in upon itself reflects the layered way the lyrics reveal that the song is about domestic violence. “The Horse’s Mouthy Mouth” takes a wide road into coherence, the nervous arrangement echoing the odd imagery of the lyrics as knowledge gets passed over string telephones. The horse’s mouth—the site of an epistemology—is drowned in vanity, perversion, and violence, and again, given the references to domestic violence elsewhere on the album (including its title) the message seems far darker that a superficial reading of the lyrics would convey. “Victory in War” asks as to remember that our sex is our gun as the band sings in unison over a horn-laden drum collage (Johnathan Crellin’s work here is essential to the song); a martial step finally shudders to give way to a more nuanced, meandering exploration of the melody.

Having two vocalists gives the band a nice range. Gage’s “Teller/Seller” and “Can’t Stop that (Sinking) Feeling” are somewhere closer to indie tracks; both, however, feel pulled apart at the seams, ranging and nervous in their arrangements. Gage’s breakdown on “Can’t Stop that (Sinking) Feeling” especially shows his ability to match Thompson-Hannant in weird vocalisms; it’s a good pairing precisely because it offers different takes on the same style of music. The results are generally lovely and always intriguing even if the way the band gives you fully formed scripts rather than short-turn archetypes requires a listener to accept that things won’t always turn out the way you expect. Real figures and real actions inhabit these songs making them sad, wistful, and reflective, even after they blow off a lot of steam.