All digital 7-inches posted on The Ampeater Review include an A-side and a B-side, just like a classic vinyl 7-inch. Most of the bands that we work with chose an accessible A-side to hook new listeners and a more experimental B-side for the adventurous listener. But Austin-based band The Laughing has taken their selection a bit more seriously and, upping the ante, they’ve presented us with something unprecedented-a concept 7-inch. Get ready for “pop music as envisioned by The Laughing.”
You’re probably scratching your forehead right now and wondering just who the hell The Laughing is and what their vision of pop music could possibly entail. I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical too at first. But this isn’t the vague and far flung pile of bullshit you tried to pass off as your comp lit thesis, it’s a bold vision that The Laughing paints with remarkable clarity and confidence.
The Laughing is a four-piece rock band but don’t be fooled by the conventional lineup. Featuring Logan Middleton on guitars and vocals, Sean Neesely on bass, Grant van Amburgh on drums, and Adam Glasseye on organ, the band likes to keep it fresh by tossing bells, dulcimers, ukuleles, synthesizers, clarinets, flutes, an array of percussion, and any other noises they can dream up into the mix. They draw inspiration from music, both popular and experimental, that spans eras. The band explains that their varied instrumentation and ornamental arrangements “adorn core song structures and melodies that take cues from the likes of Harry Nilsson, Os Mutantes, Jorge Bem, Silver Apples, Love, Roxy Music, Sonic Youth, 13th Floor Elevators and more.” Yet the recipe is so complicated that the ingredients become obscured. What do they do? The Laughing manage to drum up the same excitement that pop music once inspired but now lacks. How do they do it? By milking a century’s worth of music for everything its worth and fucking it up beyond recognition. The product captures the spirit of pop without seeming derivative. There are very few bands out there that can do what The Laughing is doing right now.
Let’s listen to A-side “Runner.” Middleton explains, “we present a core melodic and chordal structure of a classic early 60’s R & B influenced American pop song, that got unknowingly dosed with some sort potent combination of psychotropic substance and amphetamines.” Awesome. “If someone had informed Sam Cooke ahead of time how his brilliant career was going to come to such a violent and bizarre end,” Middleton continues, “he might have have leaned his later compositions in this direction. Incorporating a little 80’s new wave synth on top of Hammond organ the song is considerably faster, and more unhinged than the traditional pop form on which its based. Lyrically swapping out the innocence of the 50’s with a tinge of cynicism, all the while singing the same old song: I love you… I messed up…. now I want you back!”
“I messed up,” might be the dominant theme, but Middleton delivers it with such a cocky drunken American punch that one couldn’t exactly call it apologetic. In his deep vibrato and swooping melodies I hear traces of Presley to Pavarotti, Dr. Martin Luther King to Oscar de Leon to a laughing hyena. The Laughing’s style is bold and resonant but a little wild, accompanied well by a whiskey on the rocks. And what about Sam Cooke? My hunch is that even if he’d had the foresight to imagine what happened at the Hacienda Motel on that fateful night, he wouldn’t have created something quite so perverse as “Runner.” Yes, perverse. Why? Because it’s out of control. It’s an uncensored portrait of the inner workings of the diseased mind. And you can’t look away no matter how hard you try.
Sometimes when I’m listening to music I’ll zone out and without any conscious effort I’ll orchestrate an elaborate scene for which the music is the soundtrack. These scenes play out in my mind shot by shot, as if I were reading the storyboard of a film. “Runner” is the soundtrack to a chase scene. Frantic synths and guitars push the narrative along at breakneck pace. As the momentum builds, the cuts get more rapid. The screaming guitar becomes the screaming of breaks. Alternating drum and noise breaks on the bridge mark cut to after cut to! The drums break into a steady roll and the song explodes. Don’t expect to listen passively. This spirit is contagious.
B-side “Help Me” is a little less frantic. Middleton explains that “it slows things up and strips things down.” But please don’t get the wrong idea. “Help Me” is no ballad. It’s a dancing-on-the-kitchen-table-in-your-underwear-and shouting-into-a-broomstick kind of song. To put it more directly, “Help Me” is not a song for normal people. Though outwardly upbeat it’s deranged at the core and has a deceptively calm energy that builds steadily throughout. “Bringing in the ukulele and substituting the the persistent drums with hand claps and shakers,” says Middleton, “we depict a more personal account of some one in a sticky situation that stubbornly wants to be left alone to sort things out for himself. The title along with the overly re-assuring lyrical content betray this idea though, instead revealing that this person, really does need help! Complete with synth arpegiators and a ghetto-blastered-out finale we wanted to give the listener something to shout along to, while their ‘subs’ rattle their neighbors coffee-table collectibles.”
“Help Me” lacks the force of “Runner” but more than compensates for that with catchy hooks and unconventional instrumentation. The chorus is beautiful for its simplicity. At only three words and four chords it’s easy (and nearly impossible)to forget. “Don’t help me…“ As Middleton emphasizes, in context the lyrics appear ironic, the music suspiciously peppy. The plea is altogether unconvincing, it lacks composure.
Both “Runner” and “Help Me” come from The Laughing’s debut album, FEVER, which they released in 2009. Borrowing from the production tactics of genres as diverse as classic dub and noise rock, the album was collaboratively engineered by Erik Wofford (Black Angels, Voxtrot), Danny Reisch (The Lemurs), and Middleton himself. FEVER juxtaposes the “warmth of analogue tape and vintage effects” with the “infinite other-worldliness of digital.” Every track is memorable, interesting, and theatric… even the ones deceptively titled “(((pause)))” and “(((silence)))” Middleton explains that FEVER is named after a book he discovered as a child that discusses his grandfather Dr. John Frame’s discovery and treatment of Lassa Fever in Africa many years ago. “I liked it as it thematically ties in with the topic of the diseased (mostly mentally diseased) people throughout the album, but can also equally refer to a sense of fanaticism for something,” he adds.
Maybe it’s a disease and maybe it’s a fanaticism, where do we draw the line? Whatever the ‘fever’ is, The Laughing has it. Just listen to their wild and meticulously arranged music and I think you’ll understand what I mean. This band is a little bit crazy and a large bit brilliant. Catch them next month SXSW.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem072/02 Help Me.mp3