…and they smile at us!

In my year-end wrap-up for 2005, one track on my “singles” comp was a demo of a song from an Oshkosh (WI) band called The Willis. That song, “Are We Are” (along with a few others, including the two that are linked from the band’s page at Doubleplusgood Records), created some pretty high expectations for their then-forthcoming album Bathtub.Lightbulb.Heartattack. And I haven’t been disappointed.

Because rock is so often about familiarity – about feeling those same muscles moving again, sweat and the same nerves vibrating – being smart, being interesting, even being creative with arrangements often risks losing the power and intensity of rock. It’s (one reason) why the Ramones wrote the same song a hundred times: it was a damned fine song. But somehow, the Willis alchemize brains, brawn, and heart in a manner that sounds nothing like, but seems sparked by similar catalysts, as Mission of Burma (perhaps the number-one champ at pushing all of those qualities as far as they could go while compromising none of them). The two Bathtub songs posted at the label site linked above show some of their range: “Jimmy Fallon: The Plan” is self-referential and clever (almost too) with its musical means, and Stephen McCabe’s vocals verge on shoutiness but stay on pitch. “They Have a Theory” is a bit more subdued, static electricity crackling ozone as the band’s electronic side plays off a richly recorded acoustic guitar and high-lonesome pedal steel guitar. (Credit at this point should go to the sparkling production courtesy of James Lison, with “premixing” by Alan Weatherhead, who’s worked with everyone from Sparklehorse to Mary Timony to Maki and who also plays pedal steel here.)

Just because they can, the band covers “Good Vibrations“…and (as one of the band’s duelling Erics, bassist Eric Blumreich, points out in this interview) moves the song’s furniture around to the extent that people often take a while to recognize the rather familiar room. “Missiles,” perhaps, follows from Wilson’s unconventional notions of song structure: that might be a verse that opens the track, or maybe it’s a long intro, and then there’s the chorus, or maybe that’s the verse, but no, the next bit is the chorus I guess, and then there’s an instrumental interlude, and – oh hell, it’s the next song already. Maybe my favorite thing about this one is the tricky rhythmic thing (in the phrase giving both the song and this entry their titles) which ultimately is just in 4/4 but gives the impression of hopping off-center.

The rest of the record’s equally interesting, and just as good, though not in the same way. But I can’t post every song, cuz the idea is for people to buy the damned thing. (No Karma, in the list o’ links to your right, sells it.) Some nice packaging (too bad the lyrics are nearly illegible), which thematically resonates strongly with the record itself, which seems to be set in a sort of mediated haze (that’s “mediated” as in “media”), wherein some guy in a dark room full of outmoded electronic equipment scribbles notes trying to make sense of all the weird data flowing around him. He’s not quite in tinfoil hat territory yet – but, well, it could happen. (Coincidentally, the graphic on the CD itself imitates the old “target” TV test pattern, very similar to the graphic on the CD of Michael Penn’s latest CD. Penn will probably blame the Knights Templar.)

The Willis “Good Vibrations”
The Willis “Missiles”


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