By Daniel Garrett
Gang of Losers
Arts & Crafts Productions/Chrysalis, 2006
Is a shared condition enough to bond people, or does it facilitate only a temporary alliance? The album Gang of Losers by the musical group the Dears has twelve songs listed on its jacket, but contains three bonus tracks, including two that revisit songs; and it is a good though not great album, as the subjects of the songs—alienation, love, racism—do not come into focus clearly enough, nor are the songs as musically varied as they might be. Who are the losers presented in the songs? Who are these pariahs, and are the states of all of them exactly the same? Are they pariahs because of their inner lives, or their social and political lives? The Dears’ Gang of Losers is an album with an attraction that grows more complex and deeper as one’s familiarity with it grows. A rather smooth male voice is embedded within the warm, fat drumbeats and guitar strumming of the collection’s first complete song, following a brief instrumental introduction: and in “Ticket to Immortality” the singer says, “I hang out with all the pariahs” and “The world is really gonna love you,” making apparent that acceptance and rejection are going to be important themes. In “Death or Life We Want You,” the song opens with the lines “I want your body, I want your brains, I want your soul—brother, on a thirsty desert plain or maybe even in the jungle, face down in a lagoon.” Such desired possession could be the impulse of passion, or violence, or the artist’s call for an audience of supplicants. The song’s narrator sings, “Nobody wants you, but we want you” and “We can’t go home till we know we’re gonna win.” Going home with victory is a dream of many; going home in shame is the fear of most; and the song could be the band’s anthem. It’s interesting to be able to read a song in more than one way, of course. Heavy drums, sweet vocal harmony, and lines such as “You could try to break my heart. It’ll never be enough” and “We’ll find our place in the world” characterize the song “Hate the Love,” and already the songs’ themes seem to be closely related, each song adding something—and in “Hate the Love” the narrator sings, “Just don’t hate everyone ‘cause you hate yourself,” an admonition containing an insight. The messages of the songs seem fundamentally sane, just as the singer’s male voice seems eloquent, amidst the chaos and noise that is contemporary independent rock.
The performers on Gang of Losers by the Dears, a Canadian band, include: Murray Lightburn, who writes the songs and is the band’s primary vocalist, and George Donoso on drums, Martin Pelland on bass guitar, Valerie Jodoin-Keaton on synthesizers, orgue (organ), and vocal, Natalia Yanchak on piano, synths, and vocals, and Patrick Krief on electric guitar and piano; and also Chris Seligman on French horn and William Lightburn on tenor saxophone. (Murray Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak are married.)
Are the exile and marginality that are contemplated in the band’s songs the results of consciousness and choice, or imposition by others? Are the characters in the songs pariahs because they are artists and intellectuals, because they are poor, ethnic, female, queer, or other?
An organ sound and chanting begin “There Goes My Outfit” and then there is an attractive drum rhythm that becomes central, and compelling, in the song, which is about defeat and betrayal: “They trashed me over, over and again. You stood there and said nothing.” The singer goes from singing “Clearly this is my life” to “Clearly this isn’t my life,” unable to accept what has happened. And, in “Bandwagoneers”: “I’m trying to remember, just trying to remember when we had control and when we let it go. Why can’t everyone live out happily every after?” and “Heaven knows that I’m a fake, heaven knows that we’re all faking it—everything we are.” I suspect that a feeling of artificiality is not that uncommon in the young, for whom all the future is an attempt, a hope, an ambition—in which they try on personas and styles, and nurture beginning impulses, in search of identity, meaning, worth.
“You’re trying to pretend to love all the people that you think are beneath you. There is no known doubt that they’ve got guns in their hands,” the narrator sings in “Fear Made the World Go Round,” and I am reminded that love—often advocated and discussed—is not the most easy or even natural thing (and people of conscience, who might seem superior for their awareness, bear more of a moral burden than the ignorant and oblivious). The song is about social insecurity and false assurances, and the singer uses—effectively—a high voice as the song continues, and moves back and forth between his regular voice and his high voice. The tempos and sound levels of the song change—from slow to fast, quiet to loud. The song “You and I are a Gang of Losers” states “You and I are on the outside of almost everything. You and I are on the other side of almost everything,” and while the alienation and marginality cannot be mistaken, it would be more interesting to have very vivid examples of that condition. Often society can seem to want to make beggars, thieves, and whores of us: and sometimes I think it prefers beggars, thieves, and whores, whom it knows how to handle, with disdain and efficiency, with inadequate charity and jail—preferring beggars, thieves, and whores to honest, independent men and women, who are anarchic, unanswerable, unpredictable.
Assumptions about shared values, and how real world alienation puts those assumptions in doubt, an alienation that also makes a common humanity more important, are explored in “Whites Only Party” and “Ballad of Humankindness.” “I wanna know how you did it. You waltzed right past the door while we struggle here at the gates. We can’t get through,” the narrator sings in “Whites Only Party”: and he could be talking about a rock music party or about the way some of the most rewarding venues in the world are run. It is an acknowledgement of rare specificity. He sings, “Don’t say I’m paranoid, it’s more like just annoyed, maybe a bit destroyed.” In “Ballad of Humankindness,” the trouble in the world is mirrored by the trouble in individual lives and spirits: “No one should have to live all of their life on their own.” Who can disagree, but what does a lonely life look and feel like? What does a communal life, and a happy life, look and feel like? (I’m sympathetic, quite sympathetic, but some of the lyrics remind me of my high school ruminations, when very daily concerns were covered by literary and philosophical conceits, though I might not have known that, as I was questing then for a language that could come close to naming what I felt and thought without leaving me feeling trapped.)
What is interesting, and necessary, is identifying the ideals by which one wants to work and live: will it be creativity and love; intelligence and justice; friendship and spirituality; or some other combination of values? Sometimes the only way to have a genuine existence and experience is to risk becoming strange—strange to others, strange to oneself; and it can be a great shock to realize that the people who supposedly loved you were merely comfortable with your conventional acceptance of professional, spiritual, class, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientations and prejudices: and you are alone. What is one of the principal ways an artist or thinker shows he (she) cares about something? By making the subject of his (her) concern the subject of his (her) contemplation.
My own experience is that one’s ideals are often crippled by circumstances: it is hard to be brave, cheery, deep, generous, imaginative, when the terms of your life—work, family, friendship, love—are not those you want, not those that respect and nurture who you are. You find yourself making commitments that you cannot keep: the idiocy and malice of others surprise you, you suddenly do not know why you made a commitment to these people, their natures seem to invalidate any contract, and soon you feel free to break your promise—and once it is broken, you might feel guilt and undertake a greater promise, a sacrifice, a violation, a promise you must not keep—and you begin again, elsewhere, with other imperfect people. You find that you don’t quite have the temperament or the skills you expected because your efforts have not been nurtured or sustained. Neither you nor the world is as you desire. The day comes when you realize the effort, the work, is all, not the people. The work will give you what you need, will complete you, if such wholeness is ever possible.
A relationship with someone driven by money, a relationship that could be one of love or career or both, is the subject of “I Fell Deep,” which has an echo of the blues in the guitar playing and in the narrator’s direct declamations. In the song “Find Our Way to Freedom,” the narrator sings, “This is the last breath I can spare and I don’t really want to say something awful” and “Everyone’s so smart. Yet everyone’s in the dark about what’s inside the heart of an angel.” The sense of desperation, with awareness of decorum and social context, and the fact of vanity, are in the expressions: and the narrator sings, “I need this song and I need you. Just don’t ask me to choose. I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.” The listener’s relationship with this band is promising, and far from finished: we both require more.
Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Ben Harper, Bright Eyes, Devendra Banhart, Bob Mould, Ani DiFranco, Morrissey, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lizz Wright, Sinead O’Connor and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. “Murray Lightburn, the leader of the Dears, is a person of color, and though his band is integrated it reminds me of the black rock bands I listened to in the early 1990s such as Eye and I, Follow for Now, 24-7 Spyz, and Living Colour, and rock bands featuring black musicians such as Skunk Anansie, a promising time. The Dears also remind me of Morrissey, My Bloody Valentine, and Kitchens of Distinction,” says Garrett. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.