Whisperlights Final Show

I suppose one of life’s hardest lessons is that all things must pass. We’ve learned that around this town recently, either with the passing of friends or with the dissolution of some of our favorite bands. One of the bands I hold in the highest esteem is finally calling it quits after nearly five years of aural bliss that I can recall. At least they are doing it in style and having one final send off at Crescent Ballroom this Saturday, joined by There Is Danger and Dry River Yacht Club. That lineup alone should make Crescent your destination for Saturday night, but you add the weight that this is THE absolute last time Whisperlights will perform in its entirety on stage, it makes it a must that you will regret if you miss it. For years now Whisperlights have had an interesting time of it, while only occasionally playing shows throughout the year as their members had scattered to the East Coast, the West Coast and for some time, Southeast Asia–this makes it difficult to bring a cohesive band experience together. So in that regard, honestly, the break up is not the greatest surprise.

On the upswing we got two amazing records out of their time (Wake Up Dead and Surfaces) and some of the most memorable shows I’ve ever seen in my life. I remember Ills Riske once told me they had enough written for a third album, and while that clearly will not happen, I can hope that some of those songs make it to the next album by Riske’s other project of genius, There Is Danger.  At least one can hope the songs see the light of day, unlike the unheard lost third album by What Laura Says, another band to have seemingly passed before their time. Unlike WLS, Whisperlights have the class and the commitment to announce their last show so that their fans and friends can attend something special and revel in the moment, knowing its a joyful celebration that will not be met again. I won’t beg you to attend this show, but I will urge you to treat yourself to something damned special that I guarantee you will enjoy–they always put on a hell of a show and joined by the likes of Dry River Yacht Club and There Is Danger, both of whom had two of the greatest records of 2013, this night can’t be beat.

I can’t imagine missing it for the world, seriously it’s that good. If you are unfamiliar with Whisperlights take the time to read the review of their last album Surfaces below, in an expanded form from the article originally published in the July 2011 issue of JAVA Magazine. Then give a listen to the music, both albums are available below for your streaming pleasure. After that you will probably realize that this is one event you don’t want to miss and one you will continually kick yourself in the ass for doing so if you do. They have been one of my favorite bands for years now and I’ll be sad to see them go, but its nice to have one last night to enjoy their presence and their energy live and do it up right.

The Whisperlights
Just Scratching The Surfaces

When you hear music steeped deeply in the rich traditions of American power pop and indie rock, you can’t help but smile at the influences that come to mind and the feeling you find that it’s good to know these kinds of sounds are still alive. That’s the feeling I get every time I spin the new full length album Surfaces from The Whisperlights.  The band is quite elusive in describing their sound, according to their various websites they are “hard dark pop,” “folk indie rock,” “dreamy folky stadium pop” or the most amusing “Afro-Beat/Americana/French Pop.” There sound is very nearly as difficult to pin down as is their lineup, an ever changing roster of individuals strewn about the country and in half a year’s time, stretched across the globe.

Despite these distances, the band will continue on, whether members are found in LA, Austin, Palestine or Bangladesh, as time permits they will come together, to record, to tour and perform. Somehow this works for them and the clearest evidence of this ever contracting and expanding band succeeding despite geographical challenges is Surfaces. The album is as richly varied in sounds and texture as it is in its member’s talents and influences. In fact, more and more, as time goes on, The Whisperlights almost seem to be something of a Phoenix supergroup through the member’s connections to other bands or solo endeavors.

This might collective began in February, 2009, initially consisting of Illya Riske (guitar, Rhodes keyboard, vocals), Wasef El-Kharouf  (drums, vocals) and Owen Marshall (guitar, vocals) after the band and it’s sound were envisioned during a stay in New York. Soon, Tobie Milford (violin, guitar, vocals) was added, because he used to play in a band with Marshall. When Marshall took a leave of absence, early on, Dave Gironda (Rhodes, guitar, vocals) stepped in and when Owen returned, Gironda stayed. Most recently, Brent Bachelder (bass) of sister band Underground Cities and Henri Bernard (percussion) of Dry River Yacht Club were enlisted to complete the current lineup. Add to this mix their producer, Chris “Creeko” Kasych who occasionally joins them on stage and you have one of the most astounding octets in the nation today.  Following quick on the heels of last years amazing debut EP Wake Up Dead, Surfaces presents a band who, by their second release, has defined their niche and solidified their character.

“Ditch The Watch” starts Surfaces off sounding like Vampire Weekend with some rock’n’roll guts, before exploding into a layered, guitar walled, epic arena number.  Dave Gironda’s lone lead vocal contribution to the album is the perfect way to set the stage for all that is to follow—his voice is likeable and inviting and it’s not until you’re halfway  through the album that you realize there must be at least three vocalists here (there are, in fact, five). There is enough quirky pop to keep you hooked through the entire thing and enough gusto to keep you dancing and screaming right along. “Lyrically it’s about losing a really good friend who played in Baby Aviators with me,” Gironda explained.   “My drummer was dating this horrible evil person and they had this watch that pretty much symbolized their relationship. The drummer’s girlfriend was my bassist’s ex and he would always steal the watch when they were “broken-up”… as a joke. One time she decided to call the cops in the middle of a Baby Aviators set, a giant fight was had on stage as my bassist fought being arrested, and my drummer quit 2 songs in, on stage. Musically I had this rhythmic guitar part in my head for a long time that Illya really liked. We worked on it a bit until one day Owen came in and started playing this really cool guitar part in 5, since I absolutely love poly-rhythms I demanded he play that on top of the rhythm guitar part in 4. I think it’s one of the first songs we wrote with all 5 of us together.”

Inspired by the film of the same name, “Great Escape” is another full throttle rock number with horns, sleigh bells and yes, a banjo.  The album is unrelenting in its pacing and the pure energy here is intoxicating. Illya really takes a great lead vocal here and the song is paced to fit the final scene of its inspiration—yet, lyrically it becomes a tale, a metaphor of perceiving youth through the eyes of maturity and divining the necessity of life’s wicked pace out of that wisdom. “It’s about Steve McQueen,” Riske said. “ It’s loosely based on the last scene in The Great Escape, but there’s large, metaphorical stuff in there.” “We had a marathon mixing session and we were sitting down with this song,” El-Kharouf explained about the presence of the banjo. “At the bridge there seemed to be something missing. We started looking around the room and suddenly I said, ‘I’ve got a banjo!’, Chris Kasych said, ‘Go get it! And he finally just fucking nailed it, we sent it to the guys and everyone loved it.” “Great Escape” will prove to be one of the most enduring tunes on the album and a song that you will wake up with stuck in your head, trust me on that.

“Castanets” tones things down only slightly as it tells the tale of a keyboard that melted in the sun one day when it was left in the back of a truck. “You’ll become another ghost and no one will recall your name” is the haunting refrain in this ode to an instrument that died before its time. Owen Marshall’s unique vocals are as quirky as they are unmistakably brilliant—full of character and histrionics that make you smile at the pure indie rock flavor flooding your ears. While it may well be about a melted keyboard in the back of a truck, it comes across as more of a metaphor of our collective secret ultimate fear that after we’ve shuffled off our mortal coil, our existence will no longer matter.

“I had this plastic Magnus chord organ that Wasef’s old roommate Mikaela (of Coke Balloons fame) gave me when she was moving to Montreal. It was a great little organ but I left it in the sun too long and it melted,” Marshall explained.  “The keys curled up like the legs of a dead bug and the whole thing warped out of shape. It looked great, like a Dali painting, and whenever you plugged it in it would just play this particular chord that I liked a lot, but it was stuck like that so you couldn’t play it normally anymore. I didn’t know Illya at the time, but it turns out the same thing happened to a chord organ he had a few years earlier while he was living at the exact same house- needless to say – the whole episode struck me as pretty important and I thought I’d mention it in a song. “

The Whisperlights create this unique guitar sound that makes me think of what guitars would sound like if they could be played underwater, “Turn It Around” starts with that sound before the keys and the drums roll in to this dreamy power pop number that sounds like it could have been pulled directly from an obscure album circa 1975. “We like to tie ourselves to time and space, nostalgia’s our favorite drug,” they sing and it really comes through on this song, literally and metaphorically. I’m not sure there are many songs on the album that could be open to the remix treatment, but something this infectious would certainly be fun exercise for DJs to turn this into a nouveau-retro dance monster. “I always think of Wilco’s 70s style pop when we play this song,” Riske said. “I end up singing a lot of the slower songs and I wanted to sing a rocker. It’s not quite lamenting stagnancy, but almost being comforted by it.” Be sure to catch the bit at the end where it sounds like the song is playing through a transistor radio in the distance.

“Lucky” begins with a crunchy guitar intro, before being quickly tempered into something sweet by Tobie Milford’s unmistakable voice.  The first number here to feature Milford, it’s a stand out track that finds his hypnotic Jeff Buckley-esque voice at its peak, backed by full on rock’n’roll, which proves the man can work in a variety of contexts unfailingly. While he sings “I always get lost in your words,” I can’t help but think how often listeners must just get lost in his vocals. It is almost as if Milford wraps The Whisperlights around his vision like a fantastic cloak and propels his sound to new heights, with an ending that recalls Neutral Milk Hotel that leaves you smiling and dying a bit inside at how great the first half of this album has been.

While the lyrics are in Arabic, “Ulna Habenaha” has an infectious groove and you may find yourself singing along to lyrics that you don’t even understand—the music is dreamy, textured  and reflects the multicultural folk element, accented especially by the backing female vocals and handclaps that turn it all around to pure pop.  Then there is the pure ascension that takes place at the three minute mark when the horns kick in, the drums explode—brilliant in its own right, before it all comes back to a round of the repeated vocals.

“I was singing to myself in the car on the way to practice once and I walked in on the guys jamming,” El-Kharouf  explained the songs origins. “I sat down on the drums and the jam went on for a while. In the middle of it I started yelling the same thing as I had in the car and when we finished I told the guys that I tried something out. I got a mic and we tried it out again and I was like ‘ Nevermind, that totally doesn’t work.’ Then they all yelled back ‘No! That was perfect!’.”

“It’s about the guilt I felt after realizing that when my little sister needed me to understand her the most, when she was going through a difficult time in her later teens, I thought I was doing the right thing by being distant because I thought I was a bad influence on her,” El-Kharouf further illuminated. “It ended up backfiring and caused a little rift between us for a couple of years. Ultimately it’s about trying to understand someone rather than insist on a particular fix. The ‘she’s beautiful but she’s sad’ line comes from these two guys who were walking behind her in downtown Geneva speaking to one another in Arabic not knowing that she understood them. One of the guys said she was pretty and his friend said, “Yeah, but she’s sad”, then he started clapping and singing it in stereotypical Arab fashion. My sister then looked behind her and said ‘From looking at your face’. It was pretty awesome.

The lyrics translate thusly:

“from when we first saw her,
we said we loved her,
from the colour of her eyes,
from the strength of her mind,
we said we loved her
she locked her heart away from us,
so much that we loved her”

(bridge & backup)
“She’s beautiful, but she’s sad”

Clearly a reference to the tale by Plato, “The Cave” features Owen’s quirky, quavering vocals and some of the most striking poetry to be found on the album. Once more the use of the horns is an ingenious touch that works in accenting the rising moments of the song—I’m a sucker for horns and sleigh bells and this song has both. “’The Cave’ was the first song we wrote as a band and it went through several incarnations over the last couple of years,” Marshall said. “It used to be about the scene in Back to the Future where George McFly punches Biff. I found that scene pretty disturbing as a kid because Biff was about to break McFly’s arm across the hood of his car and that just struck me as such a brutal image. I listen to a fair amount of metal and I love the way they handle lyrics – this band Nihil have these great lines like ‘behold a black beast in the forest, seeing the salamander.’ I like to bring a bit of that sort of surreal/visceral aesthetic into our music, especially the sort of poppy sunny music this band makes. It’s also worth noting that when we started the band we had this idea to write songs about movies. We still do that occasionally, but ‘The Cave’ is no longer about Back to the Future.”

“Just Animal”, while in a way being the most organically titled track in the bunch, is dominated by the sounds of synths and in fact seems to be the least organic, playing off of an eerie electro pop sound that proves, if nothing else, that this band can adapt to nearly any style that occurs to them and make it their own. This song owes more to new wave and early alternative influences than anything else here and they pull it off, in a haunting, haunted way that’s difficult to shake. “This is our most trip-hoppiest song,” Riske said and indeed it bears the mark of its influences: Portishead, DJ Shadow, even Blonde Redhead. “It’s about bridging the gap between civilization and our primal nature. We’re all animals, but we make the decision not to be animals and take on some moral code….” “Then we forget our primal nature,” El-Kharouf finished. If nothing else it becomes clear that this album is filled with deep philosophies and well thought metaphors.

The dizzying “Receiver” is another number from Milford and it is one of his best songs ever. They literally create a sound that makes your head spin around his lyrical introspective search over questions concerning love and loss, all the while sounding like David Byrne and making an uptight point about his own self-deception. This borders on the best of mid-period Talking Heads territory, and that is saying  a hell of a lot—the neurotic love inspection alone, but the music too swirls around your mind creating a video ready to go, with images to taunt you through all its cleverness. “I’m blown away how much everyone in the band brought to these songs,” Milford said. “For ‘Receiver’, for instance, I’d left the studio early to go on vacation with my dad and the guys added this awesome guitar, gang vocal, and synth stuff that I never would have thought of and they made the song so much more fun.“

The finale and title track, “Surfaces” is the song upon which the entire album happily collapses. It is a summation of the metaphors, the themes both musical and lyrical that leaves your soul at ease as you part with the music that enchanted the better part of the last hour of your life.  “This is loosely based on our relationship to music in general,” Riske said. “And it’s a love song of sorts. The vocal call and response between Illya and Owen is amazing, while they end on a note that encapsulates the entire dreamy affair in a whirling blend of everything that makes this album great. A grand statement to back all the songs that preceded it in raw beauty, brilliance and bravado—it is the longest song in the set and somehow seems shorter than the rest.  It is the conclusion to everything you’ve just witnessed and every moment of it is amazing—a flawless conclusion to this powerful record.

The Whisperlights achieve in forty five minutes what some bands long to do in an entire career—they create a cohesive sound without the boredom of conformity, they present their vast talent and influences in a consistent conduit of summer drenched fun and fury and they strike familiar chords in your body, mind and soul unerringly. This is the kind of character a band could cultivate into a career and if they’re not careful, this album could carry them to unfathomable heights beyond the attention of local press, this is music that will endure, an album you can go to at any moment, any season and sink yourself into, forget about time for a while and just smile while you are only scratching the Surfaces with The Whisperlights.