I’m not going to claim I knew Benjamin Curtis particularly well. I interviewed him on three occasions, each time just before the release of a new School of Seven Bells album. Thinking back upon those occasions, the main takeaway I have was his seemingly ever-renewing enthusiasm.
When I met him and his bandmates Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, it was just before the release of their first album as a band, and he was geeking out about the Miami club music the sisters had introduced him to, and his quest for the most banging 808 beat possible. I talked to him in the lobby of the Brooklyn Bowl right before the release of their second release Disconnect from Desire, and he proudly showed me the tattoo all three members had gotten: a sigil formed from the letters in the album title. This was how much the album and band meant to him. I did a quick phoner with him right before their third album Ghostory dropped, and he told me that while most bands slow down and lose their energy by the third album, he was so happy that the School of Seven Bells had just released their fastest single yet.
I’d been a fan of Curtis since his previous band the Secret Machines collapsed my sternum at a small club. I don’t remember whom they opened for, but I still remember how much my ears rang afterward. Though they got good reviews and did well on the road, I always felt like School of Seven Bells were under-appreciated, that it was not acknowledged widely enough that their approach to electronic-shoegaze pop was a thousand times more innovative and subtle than that of their supposed peers. It’s also worth pointing out that he was easily one of the best guitar players of the past ten years, never letting his classic rock chops getting in the way of the technicolor emotions he could summon seemingly at will.
I know terrible things happen every day and life isn’t remotely fair. I’m not naive. But I still have a hard time squaring the idea that a man so filled with music, joy and life, a man who couldn’t help but bust out some blissfully unselfconscious goth-raver moves (we’re talking teenager with a glowstick and fishnets-levels of abandon here) while ripping a solo onstage could die at the age of 35 after a year-long battle with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma.
SVIIB was Alejandra’s attempt to reconcile this cruel paradox. Written while Curtis was fighting for his life, often literally from his deathbed (he dictated some of the sessions by Skype) and finished by Alejandra after his death, the album was a tribute to their relationship –romantic at one point, then just musical–and Curtis’ unbreakable spirit. “On My Heart” is the highlight of the album and one of the best songs they ever released. A seamless blend of pulsating goth-house basslines, spirals of ghostly moans and a strict a-to-b-to vocal melody, “On My Heart” finds Alejandra examining a relationship that is unraveling due to a partner’s insecurity, while she does her best to reassure the sap that “with me you’re love safe,” one of those made up phrases that feels just right. She’s said in interviews that most of the songs on the album were about the end and rebirth relationship. But even if it’s not about them specifically, there’s something that feels right about Alejandra ruminating on doing what needs to be done to keep their bond together no matter what. It’s a fitting swan song for a band that specialized in healing spectral warmth, and a man determined to find love in every second of his too short life.—Michael Tedder
“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” — Car Seat Headrest
Much of the pre-release chatter around Car Seat Headrest’s extraordinary new album Teens of Denial focused on how legal miscommunication and Ric Ocasek’s refusal to let the band interpolate “Just What I Needed” caused a last minute recall and the destruction of more than $50,000 worth of vinyl. It would be a damn shame if this unfortunate financial knife wound ended up overshadowing the album, which is packed with daring song structure and lyrics so incisive this thing could be retitled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Drunk. Moreover, that Cars bite was not even the most important sample on the album.
Midway through the multi-suite “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” songwriter Will Toledo starts cribbing a few lines from Dido’s adult contemporary CVS banger “White Flag.” I’ve listened to this song dozens of times, and I still get surprised every time it happens. And this isn’t a case of Toledo ironically reclaiming something defiantly uncool (Dido could write a hook, damn it) as that line is the emotional spine of the song, which in turn serves as the entire backbone for Teens of Denial.
It starts with Toledo waking up hungover and drained again, wondering why every morning is like that these days. The title is a reference to an Italian luxury cruise that sank in 2012, killing 32 people. A third of the way through, Toledo shakes off the hangover and takes on the perspective of the Captain (dubbed Captain Coward by the European press) who fled the ship before the passengers were able to escape, attacking them both for their mistakes while his band switches from a slow waltz to a blitzkrieg:
“How was I supposed to know how to hold a job?
How was I supposed to know how to not get drunk every
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and–why not–Sunday?
How was I supposed to know how steer this ship?
How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship?”
(To answer these questions in the order they were received: 1) Your Parents Or Legal Guardians Should Have Told You This 2) Your Teachers Should Have Informed You About Alcohol Awareness 3) Uhm, Captain School?)
It’s painful, in light of current events, to hear Toledo beg for forgiveness by insisting it was “an expensive mistake.” Eventually, he’s left with no option than to fly the Dido Flag, and complete spiritual defeat has never sounded more thrilling than the way Toledo screams “I give up” over conquer-the-world guitar swells that indie rock has thankfully started to remember how to do again.
Once he’s gotten that off his chest, he digs into the mess and attacks that which drives him to drink, calling out a broken society (“Told what to believe by the beasts who took control”) and lamenting the prosperity and opportunities that seem destined to skip his debt-drowned generation (“It’s the new economy, we have nothing to offer and we sleep on trash”). Toledo can’t change this, but at least he can reassure you that you’re not crazy for feeling like the world is stacked against you. Every kid fresh out of college like will is in the same boat, he posits: dead before the ship even sank. But if we’re all hopelessly fucked, we may as well be hopelessly fucked together.—Michael Tedder