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LITERATURE

 » Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]

MUSIC

 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]

MUSIC

 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]

Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
»Deerhunter
Halcyon Digest
4AD
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
»Robyn
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Konichiwa
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Lisbon
Fat Possum
The Antlers
Hospice
Frenchkiss

Rating: 10/10 ?


July 29, 2009
For several years, pundits have been mourning the downfall of the album as a musical manifestation. Downloads have dealt the death knell to the long-player, and ushered us back to the pre-Beatles/Dylan era of singles and one-hit wonders. There may be some truth to this, especially in mainstream pop, yet in the world of artisan rock, Mark Twain's sentiment holds court: rumors of the LP's death have been greatly exaggerated. A quick gander of the last decade shows not only a firm commitment to the format, but a plethora of releases that solidify the multi-song suite as the definitive output of artistic integrity. Pick any great singer, rapper or band from the last decade, examine their catalog, and drive my point home.

This leads to the debut album from a Brooklyn band revving up fast, The Antlers. Hospice is not just a cohesive collection of songs-I tepidly bring up the term "concept album." If your typical ten-song disc is on shaky ground, surely this framing device died with Pink Floyd or something. But in this case, there is more to the soundscape than meets the ear. Many in the current crop of icons have been extravagantly successful working within this framework, be it with a less heavy-handed touch than bands of yore. Almost anything by Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead, Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, Fiery Furnaces or MF Doom can fit under the "concept" indoctrination. Loosen the meaning, and slews of others join these ranks.

But what about tightening the definition, with a collection centered on thematic material so specific, the result can be called nothing short of conceptual in its literal form? Cue Hospice, an opus that takes the gloves off, and approaches the topic of dying from a diarist's viewpoint. And not the nebulous, blurred concept of death, but the detailed experience of being in an actual hospice. Of course, there is more to it, as chapters unfold and memories arise. It's a dreamy transcript freely touching on history and biography, and the results are pure poetry. Sure, death the subject is discomforting, but doesn't lots of great art evoke disquieting feelings?

The patient is Sylvia, narrated from the inside by Peter Silberman, the Antlers' unusual singer and chief songwriter. Whether it's fictional is irrelevant, because as Hospice progresses, the listener becomes so enraptured in the chronicle, the listening experience is akin to reading a novel, or viewing a fine film. Factual accuracy yields to the exploration of greater truths. And the music justifies it too: every song is a layer that peels back and reveals more and more about these two people, sometimes more than you want to know. The lyrics waver from oblique to diagnostic, with a push-pull that is extraordinary in its equal balance of discomfort and gauzy beauty, both raw and restrained. Arrangements are stellar: slow-burning, ethereal sounds made by traditional instruments transmogrified with doses of reverb and sustain. Silberman's vocal style is fragile and otherworldly (a softer Jeff Buckley), hauntingly paired to this tale.

The saga starts with a musical "Prologue" and liner notes providing background: "When she was younger, she had nightmares. She had scissor-pain and phantom limbs, and things that kept her nervous through that twelve year interim." It is never clear the exact relationship between subject and singer, but the first proper song, "Kettering," suggests strangers intertwined as caregiver and patient. "I wish that I had known in that first minute we met, the unpayable debt that I owed you."

The lyrical density that follows is immense, and sometimes turns their very relationship on its head (read through the liner booklet that comes with the beautifully designed and packaged disc). Each song is a chapter of the troubled Sylvia's past and present, with abuse and dark impulses, and no shying away from the dreariness of the situation or complexity of the relationship. Silberman chooses to deal with it in such a brutally honest manner, with such lyrical prose, that the result is an unprecedented triumph.

On the musical side, Hospice is revelatory. I can think of only a handful of records that match words and notes so capably. Minor and major keys interweave, pockets of percussion are perfectly placed, use of trumpet, harp and accordion sparse and effective. Silberman is backed by the talented Darby Cicci, Michael Lerner and Justin Stivers, who engage his personal vision so fully they appear to vanish into the whole. The first several songs show a startling level of self-discipline, as they methodically build to the album's mid-point. On "Thirteen," vocals are handled by Sharon Van Etten, speaking as Sylvia: "Pull me out…can't you stop all this from happening." It is a short, ghostly poem that segues to the brilliant "Two," the album's apex and turning point. Mighty acoustic strumming comes in from nowhere, the backdrop for Sylvia's actual passing. This disconnect is so disarming, gorgeously illustrating the duality of existence; the magnificence and horror of living and dying.

Hospice's counterpart could very well be Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, itself a famously ambitious story of woe. Both works deal with the tragedy of transience and the inability to save others from their doomed eventuality. They employ nightmares and a young woman as the guiding metaphor of our brittle existence. Jeff Mangum and Peter Silberman have made masterpieces on opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Aeroplane is an urgent call to arms for humanity, as if our collective aeroplane is going down. Hospice is a calm study of two people's humanness, at the end of one of their lives.

A defining characteristic of lofty artistic work is the creator's ability to maintain command over the output. One can always sense when the result is exactly how the painter, writer, sculptor or musician intended it to be. Everything, no matter complex, simply fits. The meshing of these gears can not only be seen, read and heard, but felt. Hospice sits squarely in this camp, a heartbreaking aural experience that hits us on a deeper level. Stark and as intense as its title, Hospice transcends merely telling a story or liberating your ears. And it's another reason to celebrate the ten-song suite.

Reviewed by Ari Shapiro
A staff writer for LAS, Ari Shapiro mixes up pretty unique smoothies at XOOM in hot Tucson.

See other reviews by Ari Shapiro

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