Keep Talking (Independent)
When the young Brooklyn trio Dances set out to record their debut full length, there was no plan. With just an EP to their name, they were looking to build on that previous work. They picked a few songs that were working well live, the ones that felt best when they played, and recorded them live in studio over the course of two days.
The result, released on September 8th on Bandcamp, is called Keep Talking. The eleven tracks range from the one minute and forty-one second blast of punk called “Rat” to the more elliptical and searching “Jones,” which clocks in at 4:57. Throughout the album distorted guitar riffs and Black Sabbath-style psychedelia work as guideposts from which the band works out different sounds and styles.
And just as there is no clear entry point to the album, at least initially shuffle mode does as much justice as starting at track one, Dances keeps thing willfully obscure when it comes to finding an entry point to the band’s history, philosophy, or just anything beyond their names and what instruments they play. Their biography, also on Bandcamp, reads:
Emerging fully-formed from the skull of a rat, Dances have yoked their animus to decades of well-meaning subterfuge. David Su (China), Sam Stoeltje (Texas), Trevor Vaz (Despair). They’re cracking the egg of Neo-New York, drinking blood from marble flasks—three dead boys thrashing ceaselessly against the past.
With an eye toward filling in some of those blanks and gaining some insight into how the band works (like, where exactly does one find a marble flask these days?), I gave Trevor a call.
It did not go well. Though his answers were thought-out and well-considered, we couldn’t seem to keep a connection. Trevor was driving through Virginia on the way home from a camping trip. I was calling from my apartment in Washington, DC, where good phone service is eternally hard to come by. I asked about the band’s origins, how everyone met, and the call dropped. We tried Google Voice, I asked about where the album was recorded, and the connection failed. Finally, I asked about about something I thought I noticed popping up across the album. Here and there are mentions of music being the driving force, the animating heart beneath the various styles they try out on the different tracks. Was I hearing a theme develop, intentionally laid there to tie the songs together and provide a narrative across the tracks? “Yeah. I guess it is in there. There’s a lot of stuff about the frustrations of …” he said, with a tone that sounded like maybe he was just humoring me, when the call dropped again.
We agreed to continue over email. Having never gotten the answer, I was left to my own devices as a listener. I get the impression this is what Trevor and his bandmates would have wanted anyway.
The album opens with a distorted, squeaky, guitar riff that forms the backbone for “Suzy Lee.” It’s a blast of punk rock with lyrics that read like a children’s story, extolling the virtues of owning a house, marriage, and family. “Just you and me, Suzy Lee, where we can be happy,” Vaz shrieks. Later, after a list of what sounds like a pretty nice love letter, he begs the eponymous Suzy, to “turn me on, up on your stereo,” and all of a sudden Suzy Lee is maybe not a real person at all, but an ideal audience that the narrator has dreamt up. There are little easter eggs all over the album that suggest, maybe, the stories Dances are telling aren’t quite as simple as they sound.
On the second track, “Holy Fool,” the “lovely house” is burning down. Is it same one that the narrator just bought? Who knows. The guitars are cleaner and brighter here, and Vaz isn’t yelling so loud, but suddenly things aren’t as happy and full of potential as they were a minute ago.
Across the album’s eleven tracks, the band works with a varied sonic palette. There isn’t one unifying sound for the album, guitar solos can be expansive and echo-y on one track, and tight bursts of feedback on the next, but that doesn’t mean the album isn’t cohesive. There is a steady hand guiding the direction here, if not one easy-to-identify voice.
This stems in part from the bandmates’ diverse background and relationships with music. Trevor says he is mostly self-taught. Sam was a choir boy, which according to Trevor explains his “knack for harmonies,” and David grew up in Beijing and was a well-versed jazz drummer before joining the band. The trio came together just as Trevor was graduating from college. He had had a music class with David, then a freshman. One day, while sharing an umbrella on the way back from class it was revealed that David was a drummer and, hey, Trevor needed a drummer for his new project. Later, in Brooklyn, Sam, a friend of a friend, moved to the city and needed someone to hang out with. After finding out that Trevor needed a bass player he decided to buy one and learn to play. Thus, the trio was formed. Two and a half years later, they have their first album.
The most fun track on that album is also the shortest, clocking in at just 1:41. “Rat,” the title and the chorus, is another moment where music becomes the driving theme, a vital part of life:
We thought that he was dead
That he’d been dead so long
His heart had turned to lead
No women sang his song
It’s over almost as soon as it begins and it takes a few listens, one to appreciate the groove, another to listen to the lyrics, and maybe a few more to parse what Trevor is actually saying because it’s all over so quickly, but it’s a hell of a ride. It would feel right at home as the theme song for network TV comedy about an over-the-hill cop who’s down on his luck, but still manages gets results.
On the other end of the spectrum is the penultimate track “Jones,” which is the longest song on the album at four minutes and fifty-seven seconds. “Jones is tired of playing his songs for everyone,” it begins. The song stretches out and experiments with different time signatures. Jones is a hazy figure; It is hard to pinpoint a concrete motivation. Jones, like Major Tom, is lost in space, but this time no one is answering when he calls ground control.
Unlike a phone call with a poor connection, Keep Talking is a puzzle that rewards those who make repeated attempts to figure out what makes it tick.