ut a real “Desert Island album” should be more substantive than that—something that covers just about every spot on the spectrum of human emotion, from despair to comfort to hope, and all points in-between. -- Matt Lemay, “Stranded: I See A Darkness”
One of the great things, in my opinion, of these Stranded articles is that you can go in so many directions with them. What exactly are you going for when you pick a desert island disc and why are you picking it? Comfort? Practical use? Obsession? I read through all seven existing articles to get ready to write this one, and ultimately the rationale that fits my own the best comes from the very first, written by Matt Lemay, quoted in part above.
In our particular formulation of the desert island problem you’re only allowed one album to last what may be the rest of your life. What you want is something that always works for you, that you will never ever grow tired of, that before those last batteries die out you will be able to listen to so thoroughly that the songs are engraved on your soul. Something that keeps your will to live strong and that runs the gamut of emotion.
And once I formulated the question that way, the answer was obvious (and will probably seem tedious to those who know me and have heard my relentless proselytizing about it): Readymade’s debut album, The Dramatic Balanced By.
I stumbled on British Columbia’s Readymade through a series of coincidences about four years ago, and managed to convince their label (Endearing) to send me copies of both of their albums for an article I was writing for my student newspaper. I like their second album On Point And Red well enough, and it was one of the songs from it (��No Longer Ortona’) that first attracted me to them. But it doesn’t have the grip on me that The Dramatic Balanced By does (something even the band’s Kevin Hilts was surprised by).
The very, very short way that I’ve often seen Readymade described is My Bloody Valentine meets New Order. It’s inaccurate in a number of ways, and going in with that verdict in your head to first listen to the band would disappoint many. In some ways their sound is very thick, fuzzy with guitars, keyboards and effects. But in other ways it is thin and brittle, chiefly in the drum machine programming that underlies many of the songs. Readymade are one of the few rock bands to use the drum machine as it should be—not as replacement, but as an entirely different entity.
But it’s hard for me to write about Readymade’s sound. In fact, it’s hard for me to write about Readymade at all. It’s harder, I think, to write well about things you love and cherish than about things you are more apathetic towards. Many of the things I love about Readymade, and this album, are ineffable. The way they make me feel, for example—the wordless associations they conjure up. That doesn’t mean you don’t try, mind you.
Part of it is a sense of place, inescapable to my ears, that means I cannot listen to this record without thinking of a cramped, grey apartment somewhere in Vancouver during a rainy night, the city pressing down on your head, latent violence, heat and passion all locked down by cold and wet and muted fog (and this can be nothing other than a city album—compare the cover art and Scorsese's Mean Streets poster design).
Part of it is the phenomenon mentioned in the quotation at the head of this article; listen to Arch whispering out “I’ve learned to hate the sun” on ��View Towered Centre’, or “But she doesn’t care and she lies about her past” on ��Lasting Real’. Or even admonishing “Travis” (Bickle?) to “load the guns, avoid sleep” on ��Bloomsbury Boxcutter’. Despair chokes these streets (and the “she” in ��Lasting Real’ is almost certainly the city herself). Hilts once said, comparing Readymade to some of their Vancouver contemporaries, “He wants all these glass towers to fall down, while we just want to watch them reflect the rainclouds” (taken from a news post on their website, www.readymade-yvr.com). Readymade are in love with their towers and their rain and their people.
But we must move on. So listen instead to ��Hamburg’. It’s a song about taking speed in Germany, about a man who “[sees] the light at the door”, who “[knows] you tried too hard”, but in execution is almost unbearably joyous, finally being carried aloft by a simple, echoing guitar chord and angelic synths. I’ve written this elsewhere, and I will write it again here: If I am good, I fully expect the end of ��Hamburg’ to be what fills my ears as I lay dying.
Or hear the joy in 'Lasting Real', in that endless highway drive, just looping the onramps and not going anywhere—joyrides for 'adults', no mischief, just escape from jobs, from rent, from responsibility. Or in 'Bloomsbury Boxcutter'—again that feeling of setting out, a great journey, but always within the cities, the City, people and steel and cement and sky and wood all wrapped together. Cities make people sad, and they make us happy. So do other people. So does rain.
And that particular aspect of The Dramatic Balanced By is one reason I would want to carry it with me away to my island. I was raised in a fairly rural area, and I love the countryside as well, but I am essentially an urban person. Not as much as some—a small city like Guelph is just fine with me, thanks—but enough that I would want to remember them in all their richness, their bitter sweetness, their essential humanity (and no place can be so lived in, as cities are, without having an element of humanity stamped on them) in my isolation.
There are the purely musical virtues of The Dramatic Balanced By, of course. I firmly believe ��Head Falls To Shoulder’ is a modern epic, that it should be regarded with the same reverence as, say, ��Cortez The Killer’. There aren’t many nine-minute-long songs that I wish were longer. Or the warped indierock of ��Bloomsbury Boxcutter’, the becalmed grace found in ��Of Urban Sprawl’, the hushed beauty of ��Following A Typewriter To Sleep’, even the bite-sized ��Always Be Closing’. There are fifteen tracks on offer here, and each is rewarding. Even rarer, each feels essential, as if to remove the minute and a half instrumental interlude ��Forgottenatural.calm’ or the lengthy, squalling end track ��The Lamplighters Are Dead’ would have as deleterious an effect on the album as a whole as would removing ��Hamburg’ or ��Head Falls To Shoulder’.
I could, as you can probably tell by this point, extol the virtues of this album at unbearable lengths, tell you about the tracks that I only really loved after my first ten or so trips through it (��Dreamt I Fled’, for example), wax rhapsodic about its sweet melancholy punch. But you won’t be on the desert island with me, will you?
I do wish more people had heard of this album, or Readymade themselves—I once made my dad buy a copy that was $9.99 in a remainder bin because I couldn’t bear to leave it there (he likes it, incidentally) —but I think part of the reason I love The Dramatic Balanced By so much is because it is an intensely personal experience for me. If I have to be cut off from humanity for an extended period of time, I’d prefer to share myself with this instead.
By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-02-02