. issue VI : iii .
. artist : a minor forest .
. album : so, were they in some sort of fight? .
. year : 1999 .
. label : my pal god .
. grade : b minus .
So, Were They In Some Sort Of Fight? is a look over A Minor Forest’s shrugged shoulder — a two disc, twenty-two song album of rarities and demos as adventurous, uncompromised, obdurate and humble as the band themselves. If Flemish Altruism is the family portrait, Were They In Some Sort of Fight? is the mundane polaroid, honestly and difficulty comprehensive, and it deserves so much more treatment than I can give it. Fight? is itself a brawling, brilliantly messy thing — unpolished and sometimes unworkable. Disc One standouts — all far beyond workable — include “No One Likes An Old Baby,” “Cocktail Party,” “Three Long Piles,” and “Wussy,” and Disc Two standouts include “John Gets Leftovers Again,” “Well Swayed,” “F-ck The Hours,” and tourmate J Lesser’s interpretation of “Speed For Gavin.”
“No One Likes An Old Baby” is virtually track 11 on Summer in Abaddon by Pinback, with crooning, low-key, slightly analgesic vocals from both singers and no harmonies except on key notes. As with Pinback, the delicate fragility is routed to flipside in a cathartic moment of empowerment. “Baby” is overtly sensitive but impartial or unsorry for itself, managing not to be that ‘old baby’ and clingy on dignity; A Minor Forest does this as well as — better than — Pinback. A great aslant, staccato solo bends down, also channeling Pinback in the noted deliberateness if not the flavor. It’s less naïve, a little unclean, with unkempt hair, neural expression and no dimples. Their pacing-out is terrific, with a small guitar upswing holding the door for the drums — how polite.
In “Cocktail Party,” torrential drums wallop in extended transmissions and Connors makes distraught sounds in the background. A fuzzy segue into a run-of-the-mill bridge is upset by an exceptional shift into drums reined in for a unique Polvo-esque tapped solo from Hoversten. It’s so small — 15 seconds — and a total toss off, spilt milk and salt, but gosh it’s brilliant, with a lopsided, diminutive tone, and awkward. Connors screeches, “I’m tryin’!!!” — vividly bearing witness to the excruciation that is cocktail parties. A Minor Forest achieve such honesty in their approach to subjects because they always scratch up from the bottom of the grave rather than at the surface. Their vector — that is, the skeptical one — is always spot on, and from there they have the option to reveal sensitivity or (mis)direction if they have to. But there’s obviously no pro to being captive with cocktails; Connors riotously cries, like an oi punk, “Don’t! Wanna!”
“Three Long Piles” is a mirror to “Perform the Critical Straw Transfer,” with fraternal twin melody and chord sequences; here, two muffled vocal strands intertwine, musty and fuzzed against the clean, reaching guitar so novel and precious for A Minor Forest. The pass-the-baton and cumulative timbre between instruments is a striking tapestry of stereoscopic kinesis as one instrument opens the riff and another completes it, one voice starts the sentence the other will finish. A minute-or-more crescendo pulls into a Swervedriver-esque floodwall of thrumming guitars, then shifting key to an effulgent mood and vomiting shrieks of noise before resorting to the earlier composition. “Three Long Piles” is just versatile enough and just miserable enough to pull off something exceptional and listenable.
“Wussy” is a slow arterial flow of this same energy (and also resembles “…But The Pants Stay On” and “Perform the Critical Straw Transfer”); it’s paced and phlegmatic, with compelling vocals from Hoversten articulating “so-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou-oul“ in that so-so-90’s way and changing key to protest, “It’s bringing me down!” over Polvo-esque guitar, with bait-and-hook barbs on the shoot of each note. Benson shines on “Wussy,” a terrific tape loops experiment with television evangelism and a morose clarinet not so unlike the character pieces Damien Rice would attempt a-few-years-and-some later, but much more successful. In a return to guitar, Hoversten whines, “Cut me right down” — a parallel line suddenly loaded with spiritual meaning. A Minor Forest often frames an issue from one way but makes a choice to open it up — as with “Perform the Critical Straw Transfer,” whose insensible feebleness evolves into an indictation of larger, completely understandable problems.
Romantic leftovers are served in the heart-wrenched stringbean and near-unstated “John Gets Leftovers Again,” with Connors on a slide guitar and double vox round singing, this is Hawaiian-vacay Slint meets The Appleseed Cast with piquancy and poignancy. “Leftovers’” is one of A Minor Forest’s best, most truculent pieces: two-and-a-half minutes and mostly-normal-but-not, it’s a totally different version of experimentality (or, when normalcy is an experiment) and so would not have meshed on a regular full-length. Soft and swaying with a sort of daisy-chain bondage, Hoversten cries, “I tried,” just as pregnantly succinct as “Leftovers’” thin-and-bones entirety. “Leftovers” also perfectly expresses the rear-view from 1999 (“I ask myself, ‘Is this all fine?’”) but might not care, and features a unique lap slide guitar part in its terrifically craggy, cagey, cocoon of an instrumental.
With all of their resemblance to Slint, is it really surprising that A Minor Forest would lambast them as well? After all, ‘keep your enemies closer’ — and Slint’s macabre despondence is the target. “Well Swayed” employs that same ghost-of-Thomas-Wolfe, near-silent, harmonics-laden thermopause and the spoken narrative delivered dictation straight-faced … only the story is ridiculous. This is no “Nosferatu Man,” instead, it’s something about … poultry? And “F-ck the Hours” is a forthright mathy tune from a world where mid-to-late-90’s Polvo hadn’t given up at least a little bit; like the daintiest of minotaurs, A Minor Forest reverse their pattern of slender instrumental verses and blasting intermissions, which is a kind of five-minute-thirty-seconds-hiccough-when-it’s-still-funny; it’s also bright and hopeful in an unusual way, and the listener looks askance as the klutzy harmony between Connors and Hoversten. A Minor Forest actually evokes determined exhilaration, claiming, “I could wait for hours, f-ck the hours, I could wait for days.”
“Speed for Gavin (As Interpreted By J Lesser)” is not a guitar rodeo but an electronic scandal even better than Flemish Altruism’s original, a relentless mishmash of stimuli ridiculous and dancey and sometimes blackout blank. Gallivanting through a discotheque comb back cufflink and garter truss tryst disco ball above a Simon Says floor; sinister electronic tendrils and spotty visions; chirping gulls or gossiping women?; turntable stutters; kitschy samples (“Do you sell fish here?” “Huh?” “Do you sell fish here?”); Siempre en Domingo carousel music; total rests (an incredible decision); drumming at maximum heart rate, the gulls return amid announcer sl-l-l-l-l-am-m-m-m-ms; productive drum’n’bass swings to ashtray arrayed upright piano speakeasy beat box nervous smokey claps hip holster swaying (so derisively cool); refrigerator Professor Longhair piano & beaten box; and ABBA on bagpipes. “Speed” closes with its noises settling, like a potato chip that will never be enough for someone settling in a can, and with guardrails and light steams all around, soothing but disconcerting, like driving through CBBT. This rehash of “Speed For Gavin” is like nothing A Minor Forest had done before.
Of course, even the extremely abstruse experimentation (like “Talking To The Man From Lusk” and “Putting The Gay Back In Reggae”) are appreciable as what they are, there are two experiments that work well as songs. Disc One’s “Disco Party”* features guitars o-so-slowly eroding an uber-loquacious soap-box-dunce nine-minute moment with peripatetic proselytizer Frances Hunter (née Gardner) of the (in)famous ‘Happy Hunters’ and Disc Two’s 21-minute minimal masterpiece “The Convent.” Experimentation is essential, of course, but A Minor Forest does do their best orbiting their target tightly, constantly challenging but constantly pulled back by gravitational forces; on an escape orbit path, they’re just too much for themselves.
I’m glad you’re here because I think God is fabulous from the very first exciting moment that He came into my life I decided that He was not only alive but He was really fabulous and y’know somebody has um said to me several times really I think that word fabulous doesn’t really go with God because do you know what fabulous means and I said sure I know what fabulous means a fable is something that’s unreal because it’s so great and I think that God is really unreal because He is so great but I also know that He is real real because of what He’s done in my particular life well not only in my particular life He’s in a lot of people’s lives but the thing I’m going to tell you about tonight is my own particular life I didn’t become a Christian until I was 49 years old which uh I think is a real interesting fact as a matter of fact if you study the statistics you’ll know that they say the chances of becoming Christian uh after well I think about 87 percent become Christian in their teens and then another 3 or 4 percent become Christian in their 20’s but by the time you get to be 49 you just ain’t got no chance at all to be a Christian because I guess your heart is hardened […] well I became a Christian at 49 so I really blew the statistics all over the place […] and I blew a lot of other things because when Christ came into my life He opened my mouth and I haven’t shut it since then well […] because everybody knows everybody knows that I open my mouth constantly for the cause of Jesus Christ all day long 24 hours a day it’s a shame I have to go to bed at night but I’m sure that if anybody cared to take me at night I’d probably talk about Jesus Christ in my sleep too but I’d like to tell you how I became a Christian I think it’s a really exciting thing to realize how God had sort of stalked me all these years and I wasn’t smart enough to realize that what He was really saying was Frances Gardner I love you I thought He was just playing a game of tag with me and I was running faster than He was running and I really kept ahead of Him for a long time […] at 49 I guess I really had what everyone in the world thinks are really and truly necessary I had a nice job […] and all that razzle dazzle that everybody thinks is really so important to being happy in life and I really thought I was happy because […] and I could smoke five packs of cigarettes each day and of course the next morning I couldn’t breathe because I felt my chest was gonna crack right open […] I couldn’t think of a think that I’d need to be saved from after all I was having a blast out dancing I remember I used to teach dancing too […] I probably sold […] but anyway […] the God-shaped vacuum and I wasn’t smart enough to know that all this constant running around all over the place and constantly having to be doing something was […] you know when I look back at my life now I can really see that God had been working for many many years although as I say I was really too stupid to know that that’s what He was doing […] but things happen to you and this is what happened in my particular life my son was married a few years ago […] before their marriage and on the way back we were involved in a very slight automobile accident it was really funny how it happened […] about 85 miles per hour now, of course, his car was so little that he didn’t do any damage to mine he really careened but he didn’t hurt mine except for a little tiny the first time and then careened off and the first time I went up and uh hit the side of the windshield and the second time I got a tremendous whiplash however there was no blood that I could see any place and so I thought nobody could possibly be hurt and so when I got out of the car I thought oh it doesn’t make any difference no one could possibly be hurt little did I realize that within three months I would have lost the sight in one eye I hope none of you are feeling sorry for me when I think about this I think about it as the greatest blessing that ever occurred in my entire life and I would give both of my physical eyes for the privilege of having had my spiritual eyes opened because the loss of one physical eye was the thing that started me on the Christian road it was the thing that started me on the road to having my spiritual eyes opened and as I say within three months I had completely lost the sight in one eye peculiar thing it happened on a Sunday that I realized I’d been out on Saturday night and as is my custom before I go to bed […] couldn’t read and uh so I uh took my glasses off and I thought what in the world’s wrong with my glasses and as I took them off […] fine when I drove home so how could I possibly have had too much to drink so I looked at my […] about ten minutes later […] and I thought when I didn’t pop out of bed […] uptown for business I think there’s something wrong with my eye well I won’t bore you with all of the details but the next morning before he ever got there I was sitting at his office and because I was so big and brave and I wasn’t afraid of anything and I knew that I could always take care of any situation that ever came up in life I said whatever it is tell me I said I’m sure I’ve got a cataract and I’ll be real honest with you I didn’t really think that’s what I had I thought it was just some temporary little thing and he said that’s right you have a cataract and what I did I cried I cried all over the place and I guess y’know when you have to be a mother and father to children you have you don’t uh you don’t really allow yourself the privilege of being feminine very often and I didn’t allow myself the privilege of ever crying but this particular day I really cried all over the place then when I got out of work I said okay I’ve been feminine long enough let’s go let’s go to an ophthalmologist or whatever you have to go to and let’s get it really all taken care of so we went up and the ophthalmologist confirmed and said well you could wait about three months and I said nope let’s do it right now because I want to get it done over with and I don’t want to have to worry about it anymore because I’m not the least bit afraid so he said okay this was on Monday and on Thursday I was to be in the hospital I went back to the office cleared up the office and then spent three wild days really getting everything cleaned up and then came Thursday when I had to be at the hospital at 5 o’clock and I was not the least bit frightened not the least bit scared nothing […] in the world that really bothered me uh of course I did take two hours getting to the hospital so I didn’t get there until after 7 o’clock and when I did get there […] so […] and I really pray I prayed then too because that’s when we pray — when we go to the hospital.
“The Convent” is an armada chest of minimalism and attention: sonic fuzz speckled and cloudy, it begins with the world’s smallest gamelan heard through wool, perennial windchimes after a Sunday morning deep snow and small minutes of small sounds; then a music box (played by Benson!), submerged tape humming like a generator; stepping-out drums; resonance soft and apprehensive; oboe mosquito buzz bites; tremolo arm fingers swat skittering tape reels, butterfingers; hovercraft hollow fissure jaunt; Godzilla damsel-cry and ape gape; clarinet helipad aerodome rotor radius; and the subtlest clarinet. The same samples used in “Inter-Continental Stalker” close it out (“And so does the wolf whistle. But the whistler can back up his expression with language: ‘How ‘bout takin’ in a show on Saturday night?’”), recalling the creepy chauvinism inherent in 40’s romances and completely changing the hermeneutics of “The Convent.”
There are two immensely successful covers on So, Were They In Some Sort Of Fight?, awkwardly unapt and yet perfectly tailored, smug grin included. They are “Fatal Wound” by Uncle Tupelo (which ‘sort of’ makes ‘sense’) and “Lady” by Little River Band (…which is ludicrous). “Fatal Wound” makes sentimental use of cellist Davison and features Hoversten on an acoustic (!) but also makes sure to say “gimme” instead of [as the look you] “give me” with a gruffness that can never be saccharine. “Lady” is nearly the last song A Minor Forest might ever have covered, but it’s a brilliantly cheeky blow to Little River Band and the folk-pop hokum of the 90’s (i.e. The Jayhawks). Hoversten’s voice is suited: deep, unsatisfying, and a little bit flat. I’ve basically waited my entire life to hear Connors sing this chorus, obviously having a sardonically glorious Stephen-Tyler bang-swishing moment: “So LAY-DAY!” And “Lady” is such a wishy-washy song; Little River Band vouched for just what A Minor Forest (them of the sensible ambivalence) want to take down. “Don’t be thinkin’ that I don’t want you, ‘cause maybe I do” works when Hoversten murmurs it out, but we know it should never have worked in the first place and shame on the power of roller skates. A Minor Forest even insert a closing riff straight from “Blue” or “Waiting For The Sun” — and then they capsize the boat with 10 seconds of nosebleed berserk! It’s a masterly subversion.
Both ending-disc tracks are similar noise pieces. Disc One’s “The Ball Window” is a screaming sonic transduction with emergent melodic lines reeling from phonemes blossoming in the electronic larynx, then sparse electronic jittering twittering frittering. There are sounds elsewhere (where?), too, crunchy bass burp slurps, little switchboard motions thin and high, a shaken-baby-rattle, and a prismatic slide of sound swathe rippling through. Disc Two’s “Shaggy Parasol” focuses on the foreground-background distinction with a blunt-force beat and a clamoring wind chime not content with the patio. Both intense in places, but also leisurely spare, unconcerned and self-possessed, these noise pieces are uncompromising closure to each disc. It’s a deliberate in-the-eyes reminder that, for the efficaciousness of ‘constituent parts’ “Wussy” and “F-ck The Hours,” both of which could have appeared on Flemish Altruism, A Minor Forest was far beyond the challenge posed by their ‘best’ material. I couldn’t recommend that one start with So, Are They In Some Sort Of Fight?, but it is the perfect cap to their then-ended career and a testament to A Minor Forest’s uneasy genius.