April 23, 2014

Test Spin: La Dispute, Rooms of the House

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If you want to listen to a particularly emotionally-devastating tune, may I suggest “King Park,” a song by Michigan post-hardcore band La Dispute. Chronicling the aftermath of a drive-by shooting that hits the wrong target, the song builds over seven minutes to a group vocal climax that vastly oversteps anyone’s notions of rawness. Lead vocalist Jordan Dreyer, who narrates the story through yelps and screams, enters the scene close to its end with the killer locked up in a hotel room, police at the door and his uncle pleading to him to let them in. After an agonizing standoff, Dreyer decides to leave before the conflict resolves. Though the false ending is frustrating, the song is so gut wrenching up to that point, I can’t say I blame him for not wanting to see how it all ends.

“King Park” is the centerpiece of La Dispute’s 2011 album Wildlife, an hour-long contemplation on the world’s grave indifference toward its inhabitants, framed by three letters Jordan Dreyer writes to an unnamed love interest. Among its subjects is a local church that succumbs to neglect and a father who gets stabbed by his schizophrenic son. A mother buries her child. Twice. To say the album’s emotionally draining is a vast understatement — its tales are so tragic, they make the new Sun Kil Moon album sound downright twee.

Rooms of the House, La Dispute’s follow-up to Wildlife, continues this trudge through the morose. The first track, “Hudsonville, Mi. 1956,” tells the story of a family separated by an unexpected hurricane, frantically cutting between a pregnant mother carefully driving home and a father lighting candles in the basement. Next is the self-explanatory “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice,” in which Dreyer recalls a conversation with a friend as he awaits his cold, wet end. “What would you do if I died?” he asks. “Would you fly out to my funeral? Get too drunk at my wake? Would you make a scene then? Climb in and try to resuscitate me?”

Wait, did you get that? That was a joke. A snide exaggeration, playful elbow digging between friends. Though it’s pretty subtle, that’s a huge deal for La Dispute, a group that’s heartrending tales tend to leave their frontman literally gasping for breath. On “First Reactions” and other tracks on Rooms of the House, we see a slight loosening of the death grip that clung so unwaveringly to Wildlife. Tempos slow, instrumentation softens. The band lets an alt rock riff rip or two and even laughs at the beginning of final track “Objects in Space.” With such a devastating album like Wildlife behind them, hearing the band embrace its humanity — however slightly — feels pretty momentous.

Each La Dispute album revolves around themes of stagnation, small towns and death, but as Dreyer attests in that first track “Hudsonville,” there’s a different gloom to be wrought on this album. “You can kick but you can’t get out,” he warns, “there is history in the rooms of the house.” Here, Dreyer ruminates over the silent dread of growing old and content in middle class society. Instead of succumbing to terrible illness, people get married and unhappy, then scrapbook their lives before dying quiet, boring deaths. Pictures get framed and the wallpaper dries. There is history in the rooms of the house.

This is an excellent topic for Dreyer to cover, because his lyrical strength lies in finding poignancy in the tiniest of moments, which can cut like a knife through Stepford-like facades of suburban complacency. On “For Mayor in Splitsville,” Dreyer remembers the father of a girl he played with as a kid: “There was something else inside of his eyes,” he hollers. “All those secrets people tell to little children / Are warnings that they give / Like, ‘Look, I’m unhappy. Please don’t make the same mistake as me.’” The song then smash cuts to Dreyer driving with his girlfriend, jobless and uncertain. “I guess in the end we just move furniture around,” he concludes at the thought of avoiding a similar fate. There’s still morbidity in his voice, it’s just a different kind of death he’s describing.

Rooms of the House’s lighter tone is interesting in that it’s a capitulation to the evils Dreyer tries so desperately to exorcise. Even the slight retreads feel like commentary, intentional or not. “Scenes from Highways 1981-2009” continues the long-worn emo tradition of songs about arguments in car rides and, as its title suggests, “The Child We Lost 1963” returns to the well of despair from which Wildlife drew. Like last time around, Dreyer’s woes circle back to one woman. On Wildlife, she was distant, but on Rooms she’s reading, “legs bent at 45 degrees.” And though Dreyer’s stories that call out to her are no less vivid, you sometimes wish that, three albums in, he’d employ a muse other than her or his childhood.

But that’s nitpicking and not really a concern if you aren’t willing to spill a thousand words of ink on a band like this shmuck is, though La Dispute’s music is compelling enough to inspire similar types of fandom. What Rooms of the House lacks in harrowing tunes like “King Park,” it makes up for in accessibility that may serve as an entry point to a truly fantastic band, which doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as it deserves. I’ve barely mentioned the brilliant musicianship of the rest of the band, but just trust me that it’s as intricate and disquieting as the shrine Dreyer’s character creates as the album closes out. No matter, the best art unravels itself through experience and history. And there is plenty of history in Rooms of the House.

Rooms of the House, along with the rest of this week’s Test Spins, can be spun HERE: