September 17, 2010

North of Northwest: Karkwa

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Pardon my French: it’s a little rusty.

Once upon a time I knew much more, “enough to get myself in trouble,” I liked to say (by which I meant enough to get drunk and flirt, probably ineptly, with French-speaking men at the bar). But that was many years ago, and even then I would have had a hard time deciphering French rock songs. So when I approached Karkwa‘s Les Chemins De Verre this week, I had to examine it without the benefit of understanding the lyrics. Certainly I’ve listened to music before whose words I couldn’t fully discern – anyone else here an early R.E.M. fan? – but there were always bits and pieces I got, phrases and refrains here and there. Understanding these pieces tended to hook me into trying to understand more, and into games of deduction which often distracted from the music itself. With Les Chemins De Verre, it was different. The entire lyrical aspect of the album is effectively incomprehensible to me.

And so, blind on one front, I immersed myself in the instrumentation (of which the in-cognizable vocals became a part) and, like the Daredevil of indie rock, found my other senses heightened. It probably wasn’t just the language issue – I was in a weird mood the day I first spun the album up – but this record hit me hard.

Les Chemins De Verre often evokes the anxiety and claustrophobia of 90s Radiohead (a band to whom Karkwa is frequently compared). Pulsing, dissonant guitars and industrial drum beats wind in and out, sometimes combining, escalating, and overwhelming vocals that simultaneously increase in distortion, creating towering waves of agitated noise that pummel you as they break. So effective is the music in creating an emotional and even physical sense of unease that it’s not always pleasant; after repeated listens the effect became so pronounced that every note felt like a touch on sunburned skin and every beat like a punch to the face. But damn, is it always impressive.

If it feels like I’m not selling this album to you very well, let me offer the (almost literal) flip side, the contrasting elements. Like a good drama, Les Chemins De Verre offers moments of tension relief. There’s a soothing folkiness present on the album; on songs like “L’acouphène” and”Le Bon Sens” it’s melded with the anxious guitar rock, but the foot-stomping sing-along “Marie, Tu Pleurs” lets this competing aesthetic stand on its own. The final two tracks, “L’Aurore” and “Le Vrai Bonheur,” bring the album to an almost ethereal close. The familiar distortion is still there, but the guitars are more soaring than swelling, and the vocals have a gentleness and even fragility to them. The album ends as it began: with the noise of a crackling fire, which now feels welcoming rather than menacing. (By coincidence, the titles of the first and last tracks I do understand: “Le Pyromane” translates to “The Arsonist,” while “Le Vrai Bonheur” means “True Happiness.”)

Frankly, though, the album’s strengths do lie in its darkest spots. Strong emotional reactions indicate strong talent; the very best music is often provoking and difficult to approach. Les Chemins’ edginess feels very modern to me; in fact, despite the aforementioned similarities to early Radiohead, the entire album strikes me as incredibly current and vital. (Radiohead fifteen years ago was really making music for the future anyway.) And the fact that Karkwa have made such an emotional connection without language as a tool speaks well for them. I’ve been meaning to re-learn my French, but I’m a little afraid to apply it to this album if I do; I like Les Chemins De Verre just the way it is.

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