Last semester, I took a seminar at Rutgers called “Intertextuality In Popular Music.” The purpose of the class was to discuss the way that popular musicians utilize existing musical forms in their own music and the way that that influence can inform the purpose and meaning of their work. In the class, we studied the interchangeability of melodies and rhythms in 50s blues and 60s doo-wop, the way that 50s and 60s music influenced glam rock in the 70s, and the implications of sampling in modern hip-hop and electronic music. It was a really unique experience – giving a presentation on The Beatles’ White Album for college credit is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, my favorite aspect of the class was the final project – an extensive term paper where we were to analyze intertextuality in the work of one popular musician or band. Most people in the class picked simple, prominent examples: bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc. However, I decided to go out on a limb and write my paper about a relatively unknown band from Michigan, called La Dispute.
I had picked up a digital copy of their first LP Somewhere At The Bottom of The River Between Vega And Altair on a whim, based off of a recommendation from my last.fm account. They were listed as similar to a lot of bands I like: mewithoutYou, Trophy Scars, Thursday, etc. I first listened to it at the end of summer 2010 and was blown away. The lyrics and vocal delivery of Jordan Dreyer are otherworldly, and the instrumentals were a perfect balance of technical, atmospheric, and intense. In short, a record right up my alley. Indeed, I was impressed enough to devote a significant amount of time to the LP. In the paper, I discussed how the lyrics and vocal styles employed on the record are obviously indebted to Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou. I also provided a fairly extensive analysis of intertextuality in the instrumentals, showing similarities between bands like Thursday, The Fall Of Troy, Glassjaw, and Isis. I got really into the project and believe I produced a damn-good paper, which can be downloaded here.
So it goes without saying that I was eagerly anticipating La Dispute’s sophomore album Wildlife, released October 4th, 2011. I picked up a copy of the album as soon as I could and was (predictably) blown away. Upon beginning the record, we are greeted by a guitar riff with a very odd tone – it’s very distinctive and has a spooky feel to it. The band then drops comfortably into a groove that sounds perfectly and unmistakably like La Dispute. Then we hear Dreyer speak up for the first time: “Night fell on me writing this and I ran out of paper so I crossed the name out at the top of the page. Not sure why I’m even writing this. But I guess it feels right. It sort of feels like I have to, like an exorcism.” This first song, “a Departure,” sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the album: it suggests that the album is a confession of sorts (a diary?) and introduces us to the band musically. Though the riffs and instrumentation are unmistakably of the band, they sound different, in a slight, barely perceptible way.
As I continue on to the second song, “Harder Harmonies,” the difference that I sensed during the first track becomes obvious: La Dispute have mellowed out. Even the faster, heavier choruses don’t have that same thirst for overt aggression – they’re more measured, more calculated, more melodic, in a dissonant kind of way. It’s an easy change to swallow, however, because the band integrate the change smoothly. Lyrically, much of what they do is unchanged: the lyrics tell an abstract, almost mystical story with a haunting quality of loss and emotional claustrophobia: “There’s a melody in everything, I’m trying to find a harmony but nothing seems to work, nothing fits…” Dreyer’s voice conveys this perfectly, with an intense, evocative, clenched-in feel.
“St. Paul Missionary Church Blues,” the third track on the album, continues these changes and builds upon them. On this song, they have a dense, post-rock sound that screams of the band Slint. It’s a sleepy, detached song that nonetheless conveys a certain energy. This is dark, wacky stuff – La Dispute are clearly a hyper-literate, musically-diverse band. The next song, “Edit Your Hometown,” hits us hard again with a bombastic, groovy Thursday-style riff with energetic, pounding drums. This is a rare instance where Dreyer’s voice takes a bit of a back seat to the instruments and allows them to carry the song. They even break out a little bluesy guitar solo at the end of the track, providing an extra flair to the tune.
Another notable song on the record is “The Most Beautiful Bitter Fruit,” which sounds like it could be taken straight off of an early mewithoutYou record. The tight groove of the drums in the intro and the jazzy quality of the chord progression is unmistakable, and it flows effortlessly into another slow number, “a Poem,” which is shamelessly emo, in the most radical, stereotypical sense of the term: Dreyer at one point screams “See, lately I’ve hated me for over-playing pain. For always pointing fingers out at everyone but who in fact is guilty and for picking at my scabs like they could never break, but they can.” The lyrics speak for themselves – they have an intense confessional quality. Dreyer would be right at home performing his lyrics at a poetry slam.
In the paper I wrote on La Dispute for my music seminar, I wrote in the conclusion that “they are the result of the progressive mindset within rock music, that the artist would be best off if they do a lot of different things with their music to make it as unique as possible (p. 13).” In this sense, Wildlife is a massive success. They took their distinctive style of music and matured past the need for extreme aggression and instead choose a subtler form of post-hardcore expression: atmosphere. There are a lot of slower songs on this album, which signals this change. This album is a big step forward for the band; they don’t sound very different, yet they’ve obviously changed significantly. However, what they’ve gained in self-control and texture they’ve lost in singalong material – while Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair contained several memorable, anthemic tunes, this album is more introverted, which is neither good nor bad. It’s just a different album for a different mood on a different day. La Dispute have thus established themselves as one of the most intense, vital acts in modern hardcore music, and with Wildlife, have released an incredible musical statement that differentiates them from all the wannabe-emo-punk acts floating around today. They’ve really grown up, and it’s magnificent to hear.
If you want to find more information about La Dispute, check them out on Facebook.