To tout a massive cliché, rock & roll is youth culture. From the sticky sex appeal of the Rolling Stones to Syd Barrett’s rallies against suppertime oppression and the now-dated radicalisms of coeval punks like The Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols, rock at every corner was first born from the heads of disenfranchised youth. As the narrative generally goes, teens of every generation have used the evolving styles as vehicles, lashing out against authority, climbing walls of oppression to “stick it” to the proverbial man, challenging fairly normative modes of “oppression” with an ethos of music that was loud and rebellious, roaring, rapturous, and eternal.
In many ways, rock was a perfect medium, one flawlessly built on a universal “us against them” mentality that was vague enough to be co-opted by any act, yet still somehow preached an unending independence and contrarianism. Rock was a mirror, an empty three-chord vessel easily distorted into whatever you wanted it to be — perfectly leveraged to challenge anything vaguely “oppressive,” “normative,” or otherwise stifling to male egos everywhere with a call to action, a perceived injustice, a slippery insult to male pride — now only a stale tautology, again and again ad nauseam.
But taking shots at rock is easy. We’ve all seen news of Billy Corgan’s latest gimmick, Morrissey’s evolving “novel-in-progress,” or other Washed Out Rockers of Yesteryear, raging again against the dying light of media cycles increasingly in pursuit of the same untapped youth narrative that Corgan & co. once offered. It’s a dizzying cycle, one that seems to repeat itself every few years in evolving styles (think of what Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit,” MGMT’s “Kids,” or Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” have all, almost single-handedly, done for youth culture), yet always returning to the same core cliché of Youth in Revolt.
Then there’s marriage. Often represented as an end to youth culture in popular media tropes, marriage is generally regarded as a nuisance to bourgeois masculinity, a resignation to nagging girlfriends and normative clichés of adulthood. In many ways, marriage problematizes rock’s clichés of eternal youth, stringing out male resignation before the same authoritative roles rallied against in rock & roll. With youth culture built on a tradition of agro-contrarianism and eternally-stunted masculinity, marriage becomes something guys are generally hesitant to write about earnestly, even as generations of aging musicians continually fall in and out of the union itself.
Has there ever really been a good album dedicated to marriage? Aside from a couple singles peppered through history, most approaches to the subject generally dramatize the pursuit, relish in the reward, or resign to a life beyond thoughts of the gestural politics themselves. Few musicians are ever really interested in writing about the subject, since for many the union reflects conceits already present in songwriting. To write with specificity on the subject is to alienate listeners, especially if the end goal is a grasp at universal songwriting. But beyond even the lowest-common-denominator, you’d think that these concerns would be more common, especially in a world where it seems like all our heroes are only getting older, faced with a never-ending uphill battle against a culture now forever beyond their grasp.
At its center, writing about marriage is writing about coming to terms with age, something which rock (which, at a certain point, becomes hard to speak about in generalizations) never offered. The uncanny realizations that embody, say, The Graduate’s final scenes never really found their match in music, maybe for reasons inherent in the medium. But a little-known duo in Akron, Ohio called Trouble Books have done some remarkable things with the ideas, building album after album of skittering electronics and swelling guitar tones into an aural understanding of a life together, a strange, captivating composite of artifacts built in testament to the union itself in times of trouble.
As a concept, Trouble Books hits me hard. The evolving project from Keith Freund and Linda Lejsovka, Trouble Books sit in a funny place, pairing pastoral romance with soft electronics and skittering field recordings that feel forever contemporary, even after almost a decade since the project’s origins. Years removed, the tracks themselves feel like stunning precursors to the sorts of sounds that acts like Mutual Benefit and Ricky Eat Acid would be recognized for years later: somber chaos in rolling slack time, infinities of stained-glass windows stretching out into negative space.
The now-defunct Ohio duo built something masterful in song, with loose electronics and rolling guitar tones swelling into quaint, self-effacing miniatures of domestic life. Following the endearing twee of early songs like “How The Clouds Got Their Teeth” (narrating Ben Franklin’s infamous kite experiment with thunderous, personified clouds) and “A People’s History of Joan of Arc” (self-explanatory), the pair put out The United Colors of Trouble Books in late 2007, a sea of sprawling ambient tracks that push past the twee traditions of Phil Elverum and Rose Melberg to firmly grasp at domestic life. The duo went on to form Bark & Hiss Records, an Ohio imprint dedicated to releasing the music of their small Akron circle, with stunning releases like Comfort Clouds’ The Dinner Set and Talons’ terrific Rustic Bullshit.
After another 12-inch in 2009, the duo released Gathered Tones, an album that would finally actualize earlier ideas of domestic life and earth-shattering apocalypses. Tracks like “Past the New Parking Deck” continue the duo’s Melberg-esque miniatures, narrating a walk to work gone awry that ends with a “quick kiss and a sandwich,” while others take lovers through abandoned homes draped in vegetation, stopping to feed fast food to the stray cats. Sonically, the panning chords and soft arpeggios of “From Colfax Place” continue the intimacy, filling space with rattling field recordings and gentle electronics that feel natural in this context. Gathered Tones oozes endearment at every bend, lifting lyrical tales with humble sounds that give domesticity a funny, uncanny feeling — something like staring out over the rocky cliff of a deserted planet, a breathy peace before a long and arduous endeavor. Much like The Microphones’ infamous The Glow Pt. 2, Gathered Tones grasps at the furthest limits of self-produced art, pulling natural sounds and heartbreaking intimacy through clean guitars and unorthodox gear. Yet here, the swelling domestic images stretch the youth-centrism of twee and DIY, forging a path through marriage in music that feels wide-eyed, fresh, and far from notions of normative resignation.
These swirling images climax on “Arms Full of Lemons,” where Freund breaks down in humbling, heartbreaking eulogy, proclaiming,
“I’d like your name
to be the last thing on my brain
when I die
but honestly honey, it’ll probably be something like,
‘You’ve got to be shitting me’
as I stumble down the sidewalk trying to hold my guts in
as I stare at daytime TV from a hospital bed
it’s just zero annihilation”
Whatever “zero annihilation” means is a mystery, though a quick google aptly turns up the PC strategy game Total Annihilation Zero, with the sorts of rocky landscapes and apocalyptic future warfare that feel natural here. “Abandoned Monorail Station,” with its crumbling concrete graffiti and swirling Twix wrappers, echoes similar sentiments, rolling dangerously close to something labelmate Mike Tolan of Talons would explore later that year on his album Songs for Boats, a series of post-apocalyptic love songs bobbing in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Gathered Tones is a step out onto rocky soil, a brave embrace beyond apocalypse with only your partner at your side. It boldly bleeds into the reds, swelling into messy loops and harrowing eulogies that trek out beyond youth culture into mountainous clichés with childlike wonder. Clutching melodies with wide-eyed endearment, the pair springs from the rubble through whistling winds and blue LEDs, quick kisses and evolving domestic bliss at every end.