Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Fleurs - Former Ghosts
Upset the Rhythm Records.
SCQ Rating: 89%
Back home for Thanksgiving, 12:30am: I grab my overcoat off the rack and slip into a drizzle ten hours strong. Caught on the wind and clinging like orbs to my sleeves, the downpour is almost sleet, pulverizing mist swirling the suburban backstreets. My concrete path shimmered in bruised crabapples and falling leaves, I parade all the dead confetti that’s at once celebrated and depressing; a complicated ecstasy and withdrawal that pervades Fleurs, the record buzzing between my headphones. Former Ghosts is a fitting title for a number of reasons, the least of which being the former bands this synth-pop ensemble originates from (although Freddy Ruppert of This Song Is a Mess But So Am I, Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu and Nika Roza of Zola Jesus joining forces is hardly an afterthought). Inspired by the shadows of lost comforts but performed as a morbid party for their passing, Former Ghosts is a band hell-bent on facing past lives and, in effect, exorcizing themselves.
“Two paths crossing at just the right time,” intones Ruppert at the start of ‘Us and Now’, breaking us into the emotional gravitas of Fleurs with a cavernously layered opener of sharp keys and subtle yet glitch-y programming. Like a State-of-the-Union conversation between lovers, ‘Us and Now’ is a crash-course in Former Ghosts’ subject matter – dealing with love as a cause for a plethora of passionate effects – yet these lyrics seem born out of necessity instead of self-absorption, and Ruppert’s hounding insistence gives a do-or-die authenticity to familiar feelings. For the uninitiated, a first impression of Ruppert’s vocals might recall the baritone of Ian Curtis, which is a fair assessment although Ruppert’s clears a few hurdles Curtis seemed headstrong against. Even when going without the compressed effect that thins his voice into tin-strands around phrases on ‘Mother’ or the slight warps that quivers his timbre on ‘Unfolding’, Ruppert bleeds emotion through his natural voice, crooning instability on the squealing ‘Hold On’ and understatement on the resonating mood-piece ‘Choices’. That his passion happens to be matched by his bandmates is a serious bonus; Nika Roza unleashes the most arresting vocals on Fleurs with ‘In Earth’s Palm’ and ‘The Bull and the Ram’ while Stewart wisely counters a discreet but nonetheless enchanting vocal performance on ‘I Wave’. The thrill of these individual efforts are only defeated by hearing all three of these musicians in time together, as on ‘Hold On’ when Roza’s wail announces itself only after a climactic crest of chants and synths subside. Opposing Joy Division’s obsession with alienation, Former Ghosts are constantly reaching through dense arrangements for renewed understanding.
Above all, Fleurs’ distinction goes to the instrumentation which, despite being drenched in reverb and no-wave effects, balances a surprising duality. Complimenting the lyrical battle between starry-eyed destiny and downtrodden reality, Former Ghosts trade soft keys for serrated ones, crisp electronic taps for blood-rushing live percussion, and together exude a violent beauty too self-destructive to leave alone. Like manic bouts of depression, ‘Flowers’ finds Ruppert torturing himself over brisk beats and urgent keys before slipping into a post-meltdown relief where everything slows with his heartbeat. And appropriately, Fleurs does the same for its listeners, providing an outlet for innermost reflection which, when opened up to, becomes an insulating soundscape of mourning and rejoicing. “Two paths crossing at just the right time,”? You said it.
Its intensity giving way to comfort, Fleurs is one of those rare albums that seem capable of shielding you from emotional harm, even when its songs are slowly burning away your defenses. Such revelations became clear to me as I walked that fall midnight, wandering high school streets. As ‘This Is My Last Goodbye’ sang its sparse epitaph of drum loops and buzzing synth between my ears, I caught thinning trees, like shadows waving, before the fluorescent glow of a local mall. Even when closed, its parking lot lights pollute night’s darkness as though suburbia reserved their own sky phenomena. And representing the equator and prime meridian crossing of both this small town and my teenage years, this mall is among many things I’ve exorcized in my slow ascent toward adulthood. The brilliance of Fleurs is its use of nostalgia as a forward-thinking weapon… and that’s ammunition Former Ghosts and listeners can share together.