Artist: The Organ
Recorded: The Factory, The Warehouse, 604 Studios (Vancouver, Canada)
Released: May 25, 2004.
Label / time: Mint Records, 29 min 39 sec.
Featuring: Shelby Stocks (drums), Ashley Webber (bass), Debora Cohen (guitar), Jenny Smyth (organ), Katie Sketch (vocals)
"Time, which alone makes the reputation of men, in the end makes their faults respectable.." ~ Voltaire, Philosophical Letters (XXII)
"New wave is a haircut. We’re too dark and moody for that." ~ Katie Sketch, interview
Think what you will about the music of the 1980's - it's now indisputably an aesthetic force. From the first lick of rhythmic bass, the first strains of bared-oblique guitar in "Brother", you have to pretty much pinch yourself if you are or have ever been a Cure fan. In some inter-spliced parallel dimension, in which Patti Smith instead of Robert headed the band, this debut of The Organ is how "Boys Don't Cry" might have come out. "Grab That Gun" is a raw, revisionist gem - ten songs in half-an-hour that manage to crowbar in moments of mania, morbidity, melancholy and still yank from every tune some truly intense pop worth.
KaitO, Metric and Ladytron have all released albums in the last few years that mainly nod and wink to a notion of new new wave. But those efforts come off as poised or kitschy, whereas Sketch's lyrics and delivery are pretty sand-blasted - "sad girls singing sad songs" was their adopted by-line for a while. These tunes sound like they've been ground between glass. There are a few tracks, "Sinking Hearts" or "There Is Nothing I Can Do" especially, where the band careens into Throwing Muses territory, while "Sudden Death" could be Deborah Harry crooning a lost Morrissey tune. You might miss the musical DNA of Ultravox's "Sleepwalk" or Echo and the Bunnymen's "Back of Love" interlaced in some of the tracks- but all the strains are here. Sketch has been a fan of these records for years, having missed out on them in her teens, while the band member's played with each other at first as a drunken DIY joke. They must have been a bit terrified to discover it all came perfectly together.
"...music speaks not of things but of pure weal and woe, which are the only realities...." ~ Schopenhauer, "On Aesthetics" (IX)
"I've tried writing lyrics at 3 p.m. at the beach, but it always works better late at night, when I'm feeling manic about something." ~ Sketch, interview
"I Am Not Surprised" for example, is a blistering, bleak three-minute miracle - a bipolar rush of bittersweet -"Someway, somehow / I'm going out now / It's all about myself / Then I'm on to someone else." A more experienced outfit like Electrelane, on their new record, couldn't quite summon this kind of succinct, disquieting wail - even with full deployment of the Hammond organ in kind. Or let's put it this way - these ladies easily out-80's Interpol and Franz Ferdinand. They sight the top, reach for it, then go way way over it. "No One Has Ever Looked So Dead" sounds a bit like if you somehow finagled Kristin Hersh or Lisa Gerrard into doing a Smiths cover. In under two minutes, the girls frenetically cram in catchy guitar hooks, some great organs and some shoot-the-moon lines like "there in the backseat of your car / you showed me every single star." They sound somewhere mid-sea between the Raincoats on Ritalin and the Slits after some high-grade tranquilizers.
"Love, Love, Love" is as bleak and brokenhearted a ballad as Siouxsie ever penned, knocked out with purist new wave angst. Not since the the Banshees spun out "Tinderbox" have we got quite this combination of sparse guitar, detached lyricism and songs streaked with heartbreak and menace. Again, this is a pretty staggering thing to discover on a first record from five 20-something gals from Vancouver. Three of them are wholly self-taught: the chords are simple, sad and striking. The mood is what carries them though - what's the saying, it is a kind of happiness to know just how unhappy we can be. Katie Sketch, lead vocalist, pulls all the dissociative stops on her plaintive pipes here. How else to you deliver a line like "If I pay you five dollars will you try to make my bed? / If I pay you ten will you make me well instead?" This sort of earnest, old-fashioned miserabilism cannot be carried by a rich middle-aged men with eyeliner and a lot of hairspray. The Organ collectively render it with a ravishing, consummate ease.
A scrap of advice: you're missing one of the saddest, spiralling and utterly impressive debut albums in a decade if you don't hear this.
www.theorgan.ca or this month's Exclaim!
http://www.exclaim.ca/ for interviews and tour schedule across Canada this month.
Update: The Organ in Concert (Ottawa, ON, June 21st, 2004)
The venue, Zaphod's, is a narrow, flat-black kind of dive with a stage that most people could jump not just off but across without much trouble. Lights project star patterns on the tiny dance floor, a few rows of red and blue spots cluttered above, black-light shows off the airbrushed walls. It's that sort of place. "Transatlanticism" is being blared at the audience of about fifty. There's a youngish pasty guy in a Slowdive t-shirt. It's that sort of crowd. During set up, the Organ's drummer Shelby Stocks is swapping tour tales with the guitarist from the opener, Marlowe. It's that sort of vibe. Who said categorization was the enemy of narrative?
The band sets up and gets running without much perfunctory discussion. They launch into "Brother" with the lead guitarist Deborah Cohen upstage in a near-motionless gunslinger pose. Which she maintains. Through the whole 40 minute set. Non-emotive, feet planted square. Ditto for the organist Jenny Smyth, she smiles possibly once. Ms. Stocks and Ashley Webber on bass are way out of view seeing to business - which leaves lead vocalist Sketch to technically shoulder the stage show. This she does with voice alone. Her physical presence alternates between nervous drinking, nail-biting or back-turning through most of her choruses. It's the voice that makes it work - precise, punctuated and performative down to a naturalistic quiver. The delivery is phenomenal, for their first serious tour. The chemistry is disciplined even sparse, every song sharp. No flourish, no banter, not a second of swagger.
If anything here is worrisome, it’s not the music. Even the non-album material is wonderful. I'd principally be concerned with Sketch's nerve, which needs to hold for at least another crucial record and the pressures of an extended tour before this band takes off. They've the genius for success and deserve it. I just hope they can survive it.