The Burning Paris
Half-Truths & Indiscretions: The Anthology
he clearance rack at your local record store can offer a wealth of both discovery and dysphoria for the adventurous record-buyer. Rows and rows of unsorted overstocks, scratched discs, has-beens, and also-rans of varying quality fill these racks, the albums' only unifying characteristic being that they don't have a market in the regular New or Used sections. A number of these lovingly crafted pieces will never find their way back into consumers' hands, doomed to decay and heat death in the deep reaches of the dollar bins.
Customers who have seen releases from the now-defunct the Burning Paris in the Clearance aisle may suspect that they belong in the latter category without having heard them, but beyond that little can be found online or in print concerning the droning Boston group that evokes a subdued Mogwai or effervescent Sigur Rós. Magic Bullet has recently released the collection Half-Truths & Indiscretions, and it attempts to fill in the story for listeners who might have heard of the group as well as current devotees of On Fire, formed by former Burning Paris members. Included on the compilation are the 2003 EP And by December You Will Know Where Your Heart Truly Lies and the 2001 album Coral City Ruin in their entirety, as well as tracks from various compilations. The retrospective represents the entire collected works of the band and offers a unique glimpse into the life-cycle of the kind of group that usually doesn't command a second look. Though the tracklist is not chronological, the listener gets a chance to follow the evolution of the band and compare its different guises.
It's clear that the material from And by December... which opens the disc is the band's most dynamic and engaging. The opening "In Ruins" opens with almost a sense of bravado, riffing on a guitar line and then bringing in cello and drums, eventually building to crescendo with effects-laden guitar and sparse vocals taking alternate leads. "Tonight I'll Expire" has a decidedly minor-key feel, with two movements: first an upbeat piano/guitar piece, then a rocker with crunching guitars and a driving beat. It's a nice exercise in subtlety and repetition that doesn't wear thin or descend into noisy oblivion.
"Asleep," a Smiths cover and the closing track to And by December..., is left until the end and "Silver Trees" (from Eskimo Laboratories' This Is Christmas compilation) rolls by, and then Coral City Ruin follows. This takes us back to 2001 and a much less sure-footed, more claustrophobic Burning Paris. The dark opening "Colder" seems to set the tone for the rest of the record, somewhat muddied by the instrumentation. It seems that the band was still in the midst of figuring out their arrangements and on the most of Coral City Ruin you can hear cello and guitars fighting for sonic space. There is less room for dynamic shifts, so the crescendos don’t hit nearly as hard. It's a frustrating stretch as well as a frustrated one, with melancholy the dominating emotion. In retrospect, it's refreshing to hear some of the kinks worked out on the later EP tracks, and it's obvious to see that the changes between the older and newer stuff allow the group more room to play with their sound. The Burning Paris certainly didn't have it all figured out, but they certainly seemed to have gotten closer to it on And by December….
The lack of accompanying material discourages efforts to gain insight into the band's evolution. The precious few liner notes (written by frontman Nate Shumaker) hint at a sense of frustration throughout the lifespan of the band, but also a carefully worded optimism and humble gratitude. He says, "I often wonder if we would have figured it out… [but] we realized we had something we cared about." The music, largely left to speak for itself, corroborates this, searching for a coherent direction and occasionally hinting at understated beauty and unity, but often collapsing in upon itself.
Still, Half Truths & Indiscretions offers insight into the strange, stunted life of a group likely burdened with the difficulties of finding a conceptual center but not yet encumbered with musical identity and expectations. Certainly a lot of positive elements of the Burning Paris can be found in On Fire's playing, and this musical history spins their story into an upward arc. While listeners may forget about this release and the Burning Paris in the long run, they won't usually get this kind of history for the other forgotten groups that haunt the clearance racks and dusty nooks of the "Miscellaneous Rock" bins.