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Methadone for The Jezabels
A night of Godspeed You! Black Emperor helps me recover from my Jezabels addiction.
This past Saturday I went to see a band play that has blown up in Australia but is still under the radar in the United States: The Jezabels. They're from Sydney. They've released three EPs. And they rock like a cherub breaking its wings against the dawn.
The Jezabels played in a little club in Brooklyn called the Glasslands Gallery, which is an intimate, artistically decorated venue tucked into the warehouse section of Williamsburg, next to the East River. The stage sits under a canopy of what looks like cotton candy, and a giant stuffed teddy-bear head is mounted on the wall like the head of an elk. This was a privileged place to see a great band that most of the world has yet to hear about. They played eight songs, and they shredded them like the night was made of a plush, delicate paper easy and willing to be sliced.
One of the things I like most about The Jezabels is their songwriting. Deviating from the conventional formula, the narrative moves from one landmark to the next like a dragonfly zipping in and out of the wind, breathing heavy one moment and soft the next, sailing on rushes of current with abandon and then calming to kiss the moon. By the time the song climaxes, I'm not sure I've heard the chorus the same way twice. Each listen is new.
Because this was such a small venue, I delighted in being right up against the stage. It must have been apparent how good a time I was having; the guitar player, Samuel Lockwood, laughed a few times because he could hear me screaming the words (a bit off-key if you ask him). I'd been getting off on the EPs for a while, but to see them live, it felt similar to seeing Florence and the Machine for the first time last year—witnessing alchemy unfold before me that I realized I'll be tuning into for a long time to come.
The Jezabels is a four-piece band—guitar, keyboards, drums and vocals—and each member crushes his or her part with professionalism. Collectively, they push you up the sheer side of a cliff and launch you into the atmosphere. The icing on every piece of cherry pie they serve you is Hayley Mary, the lead singer, who wails and moves with a sexiness that seems almost effortless. "I want to be with you all of my days, on hallowed ground," she sings, and you want to follow her into that swirling dragonfly ride. The drums pound steadily and frantically while her voice soars into higher registers. She seems to disappear into herself as she sings, as if she herself is being swooned by the mysterious power that those four instruments create.
The show was so good, I went to see them the next night in Manhattan, at the Bowery Ballroom. They played fewer songs, because the show had been going since the afternoon and the Bowery was squeezing in about nine bands that day. They seduced, consumed and evaporated the air around them all over again, making songs I'd heard the previous night feel just as majestic and charged, and leaving the mist of addiction in their wake. I wondered how I was going to cope with a night not watching them play the following day.
Luckily, the next night I had a ticket to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Terminal 5. If you know who this band is, it's probably because you were introduced to them at least eight years ago. They gained a lot of steam somewhere in the 90s and then, to the best of my knowledge, vanished around 2003. They went on hiatus. Until a few months ago. Now they're back dishing thunder as if no time passed.
For those of you who have not heard of Godspeed, it's hard to know where to begin. They play with eight musicians—which includes two drummers, no vocalist, a lot of guitars—and sweep you into 12-minute opuses that leave you wondering if your mind has been dismantled. I hadn't listened to them for about six years, and I had forgotten how insane their music is. I'll try to describe roughly how one of their songs goes.
What starts as a slow, eerie build—a violin warbling, a guitar scraping against unrecognizable axons—gets transmogrified, ever so gradually, into a monstrous cacophony. A mix of elements blends unconscionably into nameless tones, introducing you to a minefield of cleverly buried emotions, working you into a fever. This process takes some serious time. When the fury crests, it's as if an ancient deity rises from the soil, shakes a stony fist at the sky, and pounds the building that houses us all. Ripples tear through the ground, upturning patches of earth. Shards of the building topple downwards, taking out pieces of skull before they hit the concrete.
My mind would float off to another galaxy as these songs were building. Then, prompted by a new movement in the music, my consciousness would float back down from the ether, and I would discover that my body had been moving, inadvertently, all along. At times it's like a storm eating you without chewing.
To the casual observer, Godspeed's music may seem like just noise, but I assure you it is much more sophisticated songwriting than that. The transcendent nature of the experience requires a very patient participant. One of the rewarding things about this show was that I sensed that the people around me knew exactly who this band is, were excited, and drank in the rare absinthe that was being served.
Godspeed accompanies their eight-piece assault with video loops that are projected behind the stage—mundane, ordinary images that are transformed into something cathartic as one slips into solipsistic reverie. Even though I had seen this band before, I was left in awe. At one point I literally almost cried.
As much as I felt emptied and satisfied by Godspeed's set, I thought it funny that, as soon as I walked out of the venue—the second my lungs breathed the outside air—a Jezabels song jumped back into my head. The song "Hurt Me" dove back into my inner soundtrack as if it had never left. I didn't know methadone wore off that quickly.
Sam told me that he and his fellow Jezabels will be returning to New York in September. They also expect to have their first full-length album out around that time. I think we got a taste of it when they played a new song called "Long Highway," which Hayley says is about their time on the road. I'll be there in the front row to soak up all the new stuff as soon as the chance arrives, my craving alive and well. As Hayley sings, "Whole cities light up, but nothing can compare to you, baby."