They Shoot Horses Don’t They
Pick Up Sticks
Kill Rock Stars
oise” is a difficult word to use without invoking a series of unwanted connotations. In most rock-crit, it’s a badge of honor, a positive descriptor, and for many bands (McLusky, Pixies, etc) it can be. It even merits its own genre, and though I must profess my ignorance of Merzbow and his ilk, at least in that specific case it’s noise for its own sake. When “noise” is used negatively, it’s as parody or mockery – old women complaining for the music to be turned down. If I call a record “noise,” I don’t get it.
Pick Up Sticks, by the dubiously-monikered They Shoot Horses Don’t They, is not a noise record, in the genre sense. For most intents and purposes, it’s a standard indie-rock record. Melodic aspirations—check. Yowling—check. Animal in the name—check. But something stranger permeates this, their second album—a willful perversity, made manifest in the frequent, sudden intrusion of outside elements. Namely a brass section. The kind of brass section that many would call “noise,” where the instruments squeal just as much as singer “Nut Brown.”
To elaborate on that fateful word: the reason a song like McLusky’s “Collagen Rock” works is because it’s built on noise; noise is its first and its last, its foundation and its main driving force. It exists to be a noise-rock song. And on the other hand here, “A Place Called La,” one of the better moments on Pick Up Sticks, lollops in on an Arcade Fire backbeat and box-ticking throbalong guitars, looking for all the world like a safe enough indie rock contender—and stays such because it does what it should. There’s very little of the aforementioned “dicking about with horns.” It’s off-kilter, for sure. And that’s OK. Because it lives by its own rules. Likewise, “Wrong Directions” is a gleeful slice of ska-noir, where those infernal interlopers (or the band’s U.S.P, depending on your perspective) get put to good effect.
A song like opener “One Last Final Push” starts promisingly enough, wriggling like Liars on a pin. Then, without warning, someone in the background starts jerking around with the brass. It sounds like an elephant being deflated. It throws every other instrument off its stride, and for good measure it doesn’t even seem to be playing a melody. It’s very hard to decide whether or not it works—on the first few listens, the TSHDT (oh, please) horn vandalism can be unbearable; but over time, it becomes acceptable within its own context, and maybe, just maybe, yields a bizarre enjoyment.
This doesn’t hold true of every song. “That’s a Good Question,” with its incessant stoops and lurches, pushes the boat a little too far from shore. If you don’t have a headache by the intro, you will be the end of it. “The Hallway” seems to augment its childish chant vocal with a nails-on-the-blackboard brass blare, and ultimately skips out of its own groove too often to justify its own internal validity. “What Is That?” completes the middle third with a spooky collision between the Beach Boys and Hansel and Gretel, surrounded by a hum akin to an electric fence.
It can’t be stressed enough that this is a weird, weird record. Once you get your head around it, there may be space for some of its melodies to enter in, if they ever find their way out of the psychotic oompah putsch. It all depends on how much noise you’re willing to take before They Shoot Horses Don’t They stop being a passable bunch of horn-obsessed oddballs, and start to sound like six men collectively, repeatedly, shooting themselves in the foot.
Reviewed by: Richard O’Brien
Reviewed on: 2007-07-30