If you read Ampeater like I do, you probably scroll down to the bottom of the page and hit play on the A-side of the single before you read one word of the review. Today in doing so you may have noticed that the first song is entitled “The Only Living Goy in Jew York.” There are two basic responses to this song title, 1) a laugh, or whatever sound you make to express mirth while alone on the internet (mine is a sharp, tiny exhale of breath that makes it sound like someone just stabbed me with a pushpin) 2) a beetling of brows and slight canting forward of head and opening of mouth so as to indicate offense (actually this is what people do in conversation to indicate offense; I don’t think people on the internet really adjust their faces to match their emotions. Think about what your face does next time you type ‘lol’. It’s creepily blank, right?). You’ll probably react to the music in one of those two ways, too, especially the amazing off-key falsetto delivery of the song title, which sounds like a muppet after a night of guzzling 151 and torturing people for sexual pleasure. The song also uses the word “kike” prominently. So, you know, people will probably divide into two camps pretty quickly re: Life Partners. And you might not want to blast it at the office. Or around my dad.
On the other hand, taking Life Partners, a band that often wears matching camo shirts and white pants live, seriously and at face value and then complaining about it is kind of like reading a novel written in a language you don’t know and complaining that it didn’t make sense. Take, for example, the hilariously tongue-in-cheek misogyny of the title track from their last record, Men Are Talking, which features lyrics like “Men are talking / it’s a gift from our minds to the world / we got these things called ideas wouldn’t occur to you little girls” delivered in a kind of eager singspeak that manages to be a parody of the heterosexual cock worship of classic rock and eighties metal without being in any way cute. It’s hard not to laugh when the gang vocals come in on the line “We are smart!” And then there’s a fucking amazing guitar solo. The thing about Life Partners that makes their records worth a damn beyond the initial humor of the songs is that they will take a concept that seems fit for a novelty song and then actually flesh it out with a musically varied and brutally heavy arrangement, complete with melodic hooks, constantly shifting sections, violent trumpet and guitar solos that shatter into nasty shards of noise.
Nearly everything about the music of Life Partners, a quartet (power trio plus trumpet) fronted by Dave Dougan, bassist for Drag City’s fantastic psych band Major Stars, has recognizable roots in the dudeliest of 70s and 80s rock: the half sung half-spoken vocals, the slow burning jams, the acoustic intros, the epic guitar solos, the simple catchy riffs, the palpable heaviness. Yet it all gets taken and exaggerated in a way that makes it both funny and kind of threatening. The guitar solos rip and bend all over the place, negotiating not just the usual blues scales but also a kind of loose, atonal Ornette Coleman territory, and then ascending beyond melody into pure, aggressive noise…and are sometimes delivered on the trumpet. The riffs are sometimes amelodic and dissonant. The vocals are periodically off-key in a way that is unsettling, and they take the rock n roll affectations of badassness and exaggerate them into a kind of rock n roll cartoon. At the climax of the guitar solo on “Men Are Talking,” when Dougan is screaming the title phrase over and over at the top of his lungs you’ll have forgotten that this was a joke, because it is heavy as fuck, awesome in the way rock music has of being awesome where there’s now way to describe it without sounding like an inarticulate idiot (i.e. “awesome” ).
In addition to the obvious controversial humor thing (I mean, the band has multiple songs about AIDS), A-side “The Only Living Goy in Jew York” brings out all the other key elements of the Life Partners sound: descending bassline, fill-heavy drums, quarter note keyboard chords, ridiculous falsetto, distorted trumpet counterlines (that’s the trumpet in your left ear, headphone users) that devolve over the course of the song into raucous noise. One of the best things about the band, especially live (they’re a fantastic, sweaty, ear-frying live band), is the way Greg Kelley’s trumpet and Mike Dupuy’s guitar seem to challenge one another. Life Partners is a jammy band, unlike most of the bands I like, and the real climax of the songs tends to come when the soloists are facing off, pushing each other higher and higher, often with Dougan’s shrieky ad-libs over the top of the whole mess. Live you get to see Dupuy’s perfect guitar stance, Dougan ping ponging around the audience and Kelley redfaced and falling over backwards in a way that anyone who played trumpet in middle school can tell you will destroy your lips, but on the recordings you can still get some idea of the intensity of these duels (turn the volume up a lot). Check out 2:05, where the trumpet and guitar accidentally strike the same note and then lock into that little ascending pattern together, repeating it until the song snaps with the tension and just kind of stops being a song
B-side “Wha’ Happen?” , named, I’m pretty sure, after Fred Willard’s character in A Mighty Wind, follows a pretty similar pattern, albeit in a different order, with a huge introductory trumpet-guitar duel occupying the first few minutes before the vocal break. The song quickly spins completely out of control, with the wildest sounds coming not from amps or pedals but from Dougan’s pipes. Early in minute four, when the chordal background falls away and you’re just left with the three soloists climbing all over each other, it really brings home how bizarre this music is, bizarre in a way that’s surprisingly easy to deal with when some rock-sounding chords are tying it to earth. Then, of course, they bring it all home with an outtro that sounds like a slowed down, basement recorded version of a Van Halen song, keyboard sus chords and all.
I mentioned the gang vocals on the line “We are smart” earlier as something to laugh at. And it is. But the thing is, the Life Partners are smart. Their lyrics are beyond vulgar, but they are also incredibly clever. The music is difficult and noisy, but it is also constantly inventive and surprising.
In short, Life Partners are weird, offensive, confusing, perverted and difficult, and I can’t think of a better reason to listen to them. I mean, who else is going to write us a song about a would be rapist who can’t keep it up when his victim seems too willing, all built around the legal-sexual pun of the phrase “gets off” ? Let’s not make the mistake of taking too seriously the men who posed for that band photo.
The Only Living Goy in Jew York
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem046/01 The Only Living Goy in Jew York.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem046/02 Wha Happen_.mp3