The Paper Chase

Now You Are One of Us

(Kill Rock Stars; 2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 21 October 2007

Here's everything you need to know about the central allegory of George A. Romero's zombie movies: Dawn of the Dead takes place in a mall. The inexorable spread of consumerism spelled a waking death, or anyway a life in which anything that signifies vitality such as individuality, critical thought, and vulnerability to loss of limb is nullified in pursuit of human flesh. Like consumerism, the zombies are insatiable. They need more, and in that pursuit they also create more drones like them who can never get enough. The devouring of other people spells more homogeny, into a hellish and diseased monoculture that ultimately feeds on itself. The film's protagonists are as much hemmed in by commerce as they are the flesh-eating creatures.

Romero's paranoia is well-founded in some respects, but is also, of course, patently ridiculous. Like many paranoid dystopias throughout literature, its response to a real problem of concentrated power (be it the marketplace or in politics) is insulation and isolation, a solution which only works when your characters are two-dimensional (no problem if they're zombies). It's useful, but it can only go so far: the zombies seem to always find a way.

Enter the new Paper Chase album, Now You Are One of Us. The album's cover depicts a man hanging from the ceiling, in a bare room adorned only by that most obvious of brainwashers, a television. Clearly, leader John Congleton takes cues from Romero's horror movie as social commentary. The song titles alone offer sufficient evidence: "It's Out There and it's Going to Get You," "We Know Where You Sleep," "The House is Alive and The House is Hungry." The record's promo sells it as such: "Congleton examines the ways fear can be utilized as an instrument of control, even as it spreads like a plague across the land." I'm sure I've no idea what they mean.

The sound of the record evinces a fascination with post-Blair Witch Project horror more than Romero – which is to say it relies on cheap production tricks. Heavily distorted samples are buried in the mix, enough to be perceived but not distinguishable; Congleton's voice is occasionally digitally treated; disembodied voices float in and out at will. What makes the record ultimately work – and at times, like "The Kids Will Grow Up to Be Assholes" and "Wait Until I Get My Hands on You," thrilling – is that the music itself recalls seventies' horror scores. Odd, chromatic scales and piercing atonal guitars are thrown against pummeling rhythms, but all exist under a tightly wound harmonic framework.

I doubt it's intentional: as on their last record, The Paper Chase's sound is post-hardcore in the vein of early-Jawbox, At the Drive-in and every band for whom Steve Albini played guitar, but it's powered as much by piano and strings as loud guitars, often resulting in very melodic songwriting. It's very unsettling, vague and unresolved, much like a bad dream. It's mostly strings during "You Will Never Take Me Alive," an amusing paranoid rant where Congleton tells the Bible belt "God hates this country/she told me she wants me to sing out/He's female/Hip Hip for the gal in the sky." The strings sound a microtone out of tune, one plays an intentionally flat note in the song's coda, and throughout a high piano undermines the song's otherwise light pabulum.

The ostensible narrative allegory, though, only half-works, and it depends on your stomach for the idea. Like Romero, Congleton knows enough to be funny: weird, in-between songs sound collages are given unwieldy titles like "Delivered in a Firm Unyielding Way Lingering for Just a Bit Too Long to Communicate the Message 'I Own You.'" And "What's So Amazing about Grace?" In "You're One of Them, Aren't You?" he muses that "Life is long when you're lonely/the ugly, the unclean, the unfit will fuck the unhappy." At least, I think it's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek; two songs later he complains that "I'm running out of songs to sing about the wicked world breaking my heart," and he delivers them in such a way that I don't think he's being the least bit wry or self-deprecating. So who knows? A pivotal idea seems to be the phrase "let's show this world we were here," which shows up no less than three times in separate songs. This doesn't suggest fear of assimilation or loss of identity as much as, I suspect, absence of attention. Which is fine – honestly, what's more rock n' roll than that? – but given the strum and drang of the sound and song titles, it simply doesn't add up.

All the same, one could do a lot worse than Now You Are One of Us. It's a well-constructed and performed album that sounds great on the stereo. Congleton's attention to sonic detail shines throughout. If the lyric sheet fails in its goal, it's also buffeted by a sharp and treacherous accompaniment that says whatever words are left out. But the world the music creates is an insular one, frightened of the zombies that have learned to run. If Congelton decides to stand his ground and fight his demons, he'll make the record that's surely in him.