While it might seem a little extreme to proclaim the Snow‘s latest album Disaster Is Your Mistress to be a classic, somebody has to do it: four or five times a year, albums this good make their way over the transom here. Full disclosure: this actually came out in 2012. A file was sent; the link didn’t work; the ball was dropped on this end and finally retrieved close to a year later. Things like that happen around here more often than you will ever know.
In the age where indie rock is usually recorded by cutting and pasting a simple verse and chorus so that the band (or, possibly, the producer) doesn’t have to play either more than once, the Snow still make songs that sound that seem like they were a joy rather than a chore to create. The Brooklyn art-rock band distinguish themselves for having not one but two brilliant songwriters in singer/keyboardist Hilary Downes and guitarist/singer/trumpeter Pierre de Gaillande. Downes’ songs tend to be torchier, crafted to fit her crystalline, Anita O’Day-esque jazz voice. Her co-bandleader’s songs tend to rock harder, sometimes with the dark garage-rock edge that his first New York band, Melomane (who are in dry dock now but once in awhile make an appearance onstage) were known for. Each songwriter’s lyrics have edge, and bite, and clever wordplay imbued with black humor.
The Snow’s arrangements and production on their previous two albums had a chamber pop elegance, but the new album is a throwback to the days of peak-era Pink Floyd – each song has an intricately arranged, symphonic sweep. No verse or chorus is ever exactly the same: guitar and keyboard voicings and effects change, depending on the lyrics, rising and falling with a sometimes epic grandeur. Most albums can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs, but there are so many interesting things going on in this one that it takes awhile to get to know, and it takes some time explaining, and it’s all worth it.
It opens with a brief, staccato, dancing string intro fueled by Sara Stalnaker’s cello and Karl Meyer’s violin. The first song is Downes’ Paper Raincoats, alternating between a stately, marching art-rock theme and a funkier groove:
Feed your disequilibrium
Until the planted seed is born
We’re wearing paper raincoats
In a season of storm
Are you on your way home?
she asks anxiously. De Gaillande’s simmering minor-key bolero Little Girl is hilarious, and vicious, and poignant as a portait of an annoyingly irresponsible Edie Sedgwick type. It starts out sympathetically and then gets brutal, with fuzztone guitar and some LMFAO snide vocoder. The album’s title track layers swirling, ELO-flavored psychedelics into a swaying, 6/8 anthem, Christian Bongers’ bass rising tensely as the chorus kicks in. It works on multiple levels: as a metaphor for simply leaving a bad situation behind, or for a nation at the edge of disaster.
Pomegranate is one of de Gaillande’s playful, droll, catchy numbers, evolution as a metaphor for guy hooking up with girl. “I guess we lose a lot of fluids when we finally make the climb,” he grins, drummer Jeff Schaefer pushing it with a purposeful new wave beat and then taking it down halfspeed to a quiet interlude lowlit by Downes’ coy vocalese. If the radio played songs this smart, this would be the album’s hit single.
Downes’ pensive chamber pop ballad Glass Door has a gentle, Moody Blues-ish woodwind chart – David Spinley on clarinet and Quentin Jennings on flute – and one of the album’s best lyrics:
Here you are a fugitive
On the chamber you depend
A little peace, a little shelter
And safety from buffetting winds
But smoke gets in, inside this sphere
And in this haze we live my dear
One warden’s custody you plead
For another form of slavery
Where are the rooms inside of you?
Good Morning Cambodia takes a savage look at how the west looked the other way during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime, de Gaillande’s banjo eerily mimicking a koto as the verse scampers to the faux-cheery turnaround. It builds to an apprehensive backbeat Romany rock anthem fueled by Meyer’s sailing violin, and then a series of cruelly funny false endings.
Black and Blue builds from funky trip-hop spiced with Ken Thomson’s baritone sax and Downes’ come-on vocals and then winds down to a gorgeous art-rock chorus. Dirty Diamond is a subdued wee-hours duet, part countrypolitan, part noir cabaret, solace for anyone stuck on the corporate treadmill:
There’s a cruel character
And its cunning opposite
And they follow you around
As they watchy you step in shit
It’s a drag to run this race
With these strivers and their baggage
You never seem to keep the pace
As they rip and run you ragged
With its Cure references, the brief, brisk duet Reaching Back is the closest thing to Bushwick blog-rock here, soberingly weighing the pros and cons of keeping a tradition alive, be it familial or artistic. The album ends with Stay Awake, a slowly swaying apprehensive folk-rock anthem a la the Strawbs, imploring a nameless, dissolute figure to clean up his or her act:
Push on the verge of the surging ocean
Missing the days of the sweet commotion past
You felt your way to the creeping notion
It’s a lie that will make devotion last
And the bosses lost their minds
And you might not have the line
And the dotted line that you signed
When you were flying was a lie
And you resigned