Life Without Buildings
Live at the Annandale Hotel
ello! Hello! Helllllo! I've never done this before!”
To those of us who know Life Without Buildings primarily through Any Other City, their masterful and solitary LP, hearing Sue Tompkins sound so cheery and excited and, well, normal is enough to give you slight pause. And especially in North America that group includes almost all the people who know Life Without Buildings at all; over a recorded career that only includes that record and four singles we got some kind of edge out of having the utterly essential “New Town” appended to Any Other City, but of course we lost out in so many other ways; that album was hard to find here, let alone the singles, as far as I know they never made it over here, and of course like the rest of the world we have to deal with the pain of their early breakup. Now we have a live album from Australia in December 2002, which means they almost certainly had decided to break up already.
You can't tell. No, Live at the Annandale sounds like a perfectly typical if very good show by the band, at least as you'd imagine it if you'd never seen them (Glaswegians might be able to correct me there), with Tompkins seemingly over the moon at encountering a friendly, knowledgeable crowd so far from home. The set list comprises most of Any Other City plus single tracks “Love Trinity” (a pretty big revelation if you haven't heard it before) and “Is Is and the IRS” (less so), plus unreleased track “Liberty Feelup” which is both good and frustrating. It suggests that if they'd continued Life Without Buildings their album would indeed seem slightly less special, as they were continuing in the same vein.
That vein, mind you, is unique and satisfying enough that it's still worth mourning the band, but this isn't the record to share with those who wonder why. Sure, the charms of a band with a singer that sounds a bit like a cross between Mark E. Smith and Corin Tucker should be self-evident, but as I've noted elsewhere on Stylus the band's appeal owes as much to the carefully p(l)aced, deeply consonant and inevitable webs woven by Robert Johnson, Will Bradley and Chris Evans. When Tompkins starts chanting “He's the shaker, baby” on “The Leanover” a real part of the charge is the way they suddenly switch the track from sideways to forwards under her, and similar effects pervade Life Without Buildings' music. But here, amidst Tompkins' foregrounded vocals and the usual distortions of live recording, you can't be dazzled by it as strongly, despite what sound like pretty flawless performances. They're not sloppy or even ragged and yet something is missing from the subtle precision of their work on record.
Which leaves celebration instead of revelation as the point of Live at the Annandale Hotel. While it's not really a necessary listen if you already own Any Other City (expect for maybe “Love Trinity,” so soft at first it sounds like the band dipped in honey), it's also hard to picture any devotee not enjoying the fierceness of the takes on “New Town,” “Juno,” “PS Exclusive” and the rest here. Tompkins especially is in fine form throughout. “We're here tomorrow, so we're just going to do the same songs in a different order,” she says with a giggle before “Young Offenders,” and it's that sort of thing that causes this post hoc souvenir to retroactively restore Life Without Buildings in the eyes of their distant admirers into what they've always been: Just another band. A superlative one, but their record always seemed almost alien and unapproachable, now they sound human and warm in the way they always were. It's just contingency that's kept us apart, and although we'll never get to see them up close at least now we can get an idea. Humanizing the band doesn't diminish the power of their best work; it just makes its genesis more comprehensible.