March 31, 2004

The Beauty Pill "The Unsustainable Lifestyle"

Give it up for Chad Clark! Over the last seven years, he’s positioned himself as Dischord’s latest Renaissance Man, following in the footsteps of J. Robbins as a man who does consistently excellent work both in front of the microphone and behind the boards. In 1997, Clark’s previous band Smart Went Crazy released Con Art, a near-masterpiece that set his bitter relationship screeds and sarcastic social commentary atop a Fugazi-gone-baroque hybrid that bands like Cursive would take to the bank a couple of years later. Since then, Chad has been doing production and/or mastering duties for some of the finest records to come out of Washington, DC, most notably the Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency and I. If you’re a regular reader of this site and you don’t know about Emergency and I, go to the All Music Guide web site right now and come back once you’re done. I can’t explain EVERYTHING for you! :-) The point is that if you’re a rock band in the District of Columbia and you want your record to sound really good, chances are you’re gonna have to go through Clark at some point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I admire Chad for being one of the few black men in independent rock to establish himself as a crucial component of his local scene, with no traces of tokenism in sight. However, he could be a Martian with polka-dot skin, and that wouldn’t change the fact that he’s got the sonic Midas touch.

While making other bands sound good, Clark intermittently released EPs of his own material under the name the Beauty Pill. More of a loose conglomeration of like-minded creative friends than an actual band, the Beauty Pill found Clark’s music changing gradually in many ways. His lyrics stopped focusing on specific targets like ex-girlfriends and politicians, and his pointed indignation started giving way to a more general sense of world-weariness. His music became paradoxically more stripped-down AND more florid; the backdrops weren’t as cluttered or intense as those of Smart Went Crazy, but Chad was increasingly eager to dabble with other genres and show off the new tricks he learned while producing other bands. Disco rhythms, IDM trickery, and found sound were just as likely to end up on a Beauty Pill record as traditional indie-rock. The Beauty Pill’s two EPs, Cigarette Girl from the Future and You Are Right to Be Afraid, promised great things, and the expectation was only compounded by the length of time it took for this material to surface. A discography consisting of ten songs in three years isn’t exactly prolific, and the world really doesn’t need another Kevin Shields. Fortunately, Chad didn’t take too long in assembling the Beauty Pill’s long-awaited debut, The Unsustainable Lifestyle, and its arrival definitely signals a complete transformation from the Chad Clark of 1997 to the Chad Clark of 2004.

The first thing I noticed about the album was that its back cover features the members of the Beauty Pill all sitting next to each other and SMILING. No longer a studio project, they’re actually a band…a band that seems to get along with each other, which should be refreshing to anyone who knows about the internal tension that turned Smart Went Crazy into Dischord’s own Fleetwood Mac. This newfound camaraderie may possibly explain why there is only one song on the record that examines a failing relationship. However, since that song is sung from the point of view of a man in prison (and by one of the WOMEN in the band, no less), I’m pretty sure that it isn’t based on personal perspective. This also might explain the ego-less democratization of vocal duties on this record. The Beauty Pill boasts two lead singers other than Clark. Rachel Burke sings on half of the songs, her clear alto sigh reserved wisely for the songs that are beyond Clark’s range. Drummer Ryan Nelson sings on “Drive Down the Cost,” which is unfortunately the album’s weakest song. The song drives a four-chord progression into the ground for too long, and although Ryan does an okay job on the microphone, it’s obvious that Chad could’ve sung it better. However, it does boast a line that sums up the loose concept behind The Unsustainable Lifestyle in a nutshell: “I worry that I may die poor.”

If the album title isn’t obvious enough, the artwork gives it all away. There are captions about imaginary people that say things like “knows exactly how much money is in his bank account at any given moment,” “doesn’t mind being lied to if it’s a good lie,” and “has successfully avoided the topic of poverty for 25 years.” This is an album filled with anecdotes sung from the point of view of people who make themselves miserable striving for things that they cannot have, and probably shouldn’t be striving for anyway. “Such Large Portions!” speaks of common yet suppressed desires that only get directly denied when people finally speak out about them. “There is a price for free speech,” Rachel sings, “[when] you want what you want and you can’t really say what you want.” “Nancy Medley,” a 15-year-old “girl genius,” does drugs in order to overcome social awkwardness. “Quote Devout Unquote” is a plea for the human race to simply accept the uncertainty of life, instead of treating religious doctrines or conspiracy theories as pure facts. “I’m Just Gonna Close My Eyes for a Second” nails the difference between pragmatism and pessimism in two lines: “I say ‘risk’ and you say ‘cost.’ You choose ‘trapped’ and I choose ‘lost’.” The album’s darkest moment comes in “Lifeguard in Wintertime,” when the protagonist dreams of someone dying by accidentally diving into an empty pool that they thought was full of water. This gruesome image serves as a metaphor for what the characters in the other songs do to their own lives. The soaring chorus only seals the deal; Rachel illustrates the omnipresence of such decay when she sings, “I have these thoughts in the summertime, too.”

Two songs merit more particular attention. First, there’s “Wont You Be Mine,” which examines race relations with a candor that I haven’t heard in independent rock since…well, since Con Art! The song is a vicious attack on mainstream hip-hop. Many rappers sell juvenile, one-dimensional images of black manhood to the mainstream, catering to stereotypes that many Americans already have about blacks. However, they’re making so much money off of it that they don’t even consider the social ramifications of what they’re doing. “The leash is loose enough to feel like autonomy,” Chad sings. “Money is here if you want it, and they love it when you flaunt it. Yes, you will find as you’re forfeiting all your power, the applause gets louder.” In the meantime, black men who want to be seen as three-dimensional human beings continue to get the short end of the stick. “If you could hear this,” he asks, “would you care that you made me theirs?” When Chad sings in the chorus, “Are you my nigger?,” it’s a criticism of both the usage of such a derogatory word as a term of endearment as well as of modern hip-hop’s failure to truly represent the people that it claims to. The opening sample of Mr. Rogers spelling out the word “friend” only reinforces this point. In fact, every single element of the song, both musical and lyrical, has some underlying racial subtext, from the samples of WWII-era music that form the song’s backdrop to Clark’s rap-like vocal delivery. Last but not least, the song is as catchy as it is vicious.

Then, there’s album closer “Terrible Things.” Musically, it’s the most naked song on the record, with little more than bass, drums, and Chad’s croaking voice ruminating on terrorism. He name-drops both Idi Amin and Mark David Chapman, both of whom seem like archaic targets in this post-9/11 era…but then again, that might be precisely Clark’s point. People have been committing nonsensical acts of violence against each other since the beginning of time, so instead of letting 9/11 give us a spirit of fear “permanent loan,” why don’t we simply “go outside and stop them”? Just like “Won’t You Be Mine,” this poignant (if slightly idealistic) sentiment is attached to a chorus that will remain in your head long after the record is

Please don’t let my emphasis on lyrical analysis give you the impression that the music isn’t equally detailed and compelling. “Goodnight for Real” begins the album in a half-awake state, with the guitars drenched in reverb and tremelo, the drums slowly panning from left and right, and Chad singing as if he’s still clearing the crust from his eyes. The song swells into a rousing climax that almost seems at odds with the subject matter: soulless bands playing to bored, irony-saturated audiences. “Goodnight for Real,” like many other songs on the record, has a light shoegaze patina that makes the songs sound otherworldly in spite of such earthbound subject matters. “Such Large Portions!” boasts pitch-imperfect guitars from the Swirlies handbook. On “Nancy Medley,” Chad runs his voice through a Leslie speaker cabinet for a hallucinogenic effect that nicely corresponds with the subject matter. Every song is fleshed out with just enough studio trickery or instrumental garnish (special kudos go to Rachel for her excellent Wurlitzer playing) to keep listeners on their toes, especially if they’re listening to the record on headphones. “The Western Prayer” is a particular aural treat. It sounds as if the rhythm section’s having its own party away from the rest of the band, with clanking percussion tumbling from each speaker, and muscular bass fighting the spaghetti-western guitar for whatever space that’s left.

“The Western Prayer” and “Won’t You Be Mine” are the most musically experimental songs on the record, and while The Unsustainable Lifestyle’s great as it is, it could have used a couple more songs like these (or at least one more to replace “Drive Down the Cost”). Nonetheless, it’s nice to see Clark getting older, wiser, and calmer without losing any of the things that made his earlier work such a breath of fresh air. From start to finish, The Unsustainable Lifestyle functions well as both pop music and sociopolitical critique. I think that I’ve just heard 2004’s first contender for Album of the Year. (He's not alone in thinking that--ed.)

---Sean Padilla

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