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alive to every smile
Trembling Blue Stars
Alive to Every Smile
Sub Pop

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I don't often look back on my boarding school days in Paris, but I've never forgotten the diaries of Andre Gide. He's classed as a romantic, and is often lost in pleasure, but he did not shirk the truth. He's a gentleman to his wife, and he cheats on her with the bag boy. He writes arrogance, self-pity, giddiness, lust and pain. He dotes upon his loves and makes poetry from bag boy's socks, but he never romanticizes his free-falling life. His flaws go down in each paragraph, and they cast a cold glow of truth upon the page. Gide, through his words, becomes a character more human and sympathetic than our own, frequently TV-imitating selves.

Few music artists reach Gide's heights of naked reality, for music is one art that permits, if not outright endorses, bullshit. It allows for brevity, and for self-contained moments of exaggerated bliss or scorn. Song after song, you can be an ass, or an imitation of a song you loved, and get us on the dance floor. In four minutes of well-chosen beats, an artist can fuck our ears with pure manipulation -- and we'll neither know it, nor care, by the song's final fade.

If there were more bands like Trembling Blue Stars, though, we would be pickier; their honesty is addictive. Album after album, Bobby Wratten's Trembling Blue Stars have been building the musical equivalent to Gide's journals. As long as you can stomach personal bruises placed in the public eye, the better to bruise another, this is truth-seeker's bliss. Their debut chronicled the unwanted breakup of a relationship, and every song since then has moved one step closer to its final, depressingly permanent dissolution. It is wrenching, heartbreaking drama that Wratten's unflinching, wide-eyed vocals never soak in melodrama. Alive's first line ("You've got to stop fucking her up/You've got to grow up") succinctly updates the plot for devoted followers of Bobby's melodic opera; he, the protagonist of his songs, must either move on, or kiss friendship goodbye.

The worst case scenario seems inevitable, in these accelerated pop dramas, because you can't worship something, then watch gracefully as it devolves into chitchats about the weather. In "Haunted Days", four minutes of song become a true refuge ("I want a world that's hers and mine/While the real one's put on hold") from acceptance, leading to empty movie theaters and minds filled with guilt and life-loathing ("I know I'm in no position to miss her/Shouldn't hold her so close when she calls"). There is no escape here, no "dark eyes" that take him from the dark roads of obsession. Wratten asks, "Could you ever believe there's no hidden agenda with me?", Knowing the answer, he pleads that the woman not "live in the real world." In resignation, he calls their relationship the best love affair that never really happened. Your favorite soap opera will suck in comparison.

I quote many of Wratten's lyrics because I want to prove that the Gide comparison is sincerely offered, and I want everyone who might like this band to stop passing them up. Wratten's writing has never been approached with the seriousness it deserves, or given what I consider obligatory comparisons to Plastic Ono Band-era Lennon. Wratten and his band are not likeable imitators like Ocean Colour Scene, but a one-of-a-kind great band. Sure, their albums are depressing little fuckers, made more gruesome when they parallel your own life, but they chronicle a shot heart better than any dead lover on the floor. Additionally, while the music behind the lyrics doesn't exactly bristle with innovation, it's the best blend of acoustic and electronic instruments I've heard. Without ever upstaging the lyrics, it also makes them more than mere diary entries. Drop the music of "The Ghost of an Unkissed Kiss" into a Kylie Minogue record, and you'd have a number one hit. Ditto for "Under Lock and Key", "Here All Day", "St Paul's Cathedral at Night" and every other song but "With Every Story" -- which, musically, is New Order-lite. Harvey Williams, whose solo records are pure beach piano bliss, anchors Wratten's soft voice within the skeletons of Factory Records' past, while Keris Howard (Brighter, HAL, Harper Lee) seems to have fed his bass a full bottle of cough syrup. Aberdeen's Beth Arzy fills out the band with an angelic female voice, not dissimilar to ex-Star Annemari Davis', which lends an ethereal beauty to the proceedings that might otherwise have been notably lacking.

For me, a wonderful band is a group that makes you hunt down and buy/borrow not just their own records, but every album by any group that even imitates them well. Motivated by Trembling Blue Stars' consistent, catchy, heartstaggeringly inspired fourth full-length, I went on such a buying spree that it feels like I own every lovelorn album by every English guy who ever had it blue. In this tragedy-ridden autumn, you could say I've been living it up.

-- Theodore Defosse
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