The Rogers Sisters
The Invisible Deck
n a recent article in The Believer, Chris Bachelder runs a statistical analysis in search of the secret to an effective art of engagement. His findings: in a world increasingly going out of its way to one-up itself, the adage about the truth being stranger than fiction is becoming all the more obvious; therefore, a satirist of modern America can only stare at our ad absurdum reality and say, as Bachelder does, “You win, America. You win.” So he turns to two long-dead authors, E.L. Doctorow, one of the best political authors of the last century, and Upton Sinclair, probably the most effective. From Doctorow he takes solace in, and heed from, pull-quotes; from Sinclair he takes exclamation points. There are over 1,500 of them in his novel Oil! (soon to be a motion picture from Miramax and Paul Thomas Anderson), and their cumulative effect is like a tidal wave of emphasis, like his points are too important to end in a period or, God forbid, a question mark. Make no mistake, Sinclair is an important figure to look at if one wishes to find engagement—The Jungle led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, for instance—but not so much if one wants art. Narrative heft, potent image, deft metaphor, those signposts of literary beauty were never his strong suit. Bachelder calls him a pamphleteer. He's being diplomatic; Sinclair was, more than anything else, a propagandist. But America has a long history of great good (and bad) done by propagandists with pamphlets. It’s common sense that these things work. But is it art?
The Rogers Sisters, like so many of us, are also in search of an art of engagement. They've been pegged as a “political band” before, and it's both true and not, fair and unfair. On the larger scale, they build a sharp, Sonic Youth and Jesus and Mary Chain inspired indie rock that occasionally requires some engagement with, say, a newspaper. But within they bury their own exclamation point, so to speak, which in this case is used to muddy the waters rather than clear them up. It's the word “you.” I haven't been bothered to count them all, but you'd be hard pressed to find a song on The Invisible Deck that doesn't use a few. “You're living in a bubble that's blowing 'cross the world;” “You're just a statue, we're here to change;” “We let you in so you should feel lucky;” “When you say it'll never get better, that's when I say you've never been more right in your life;” etc. It's almost never clear who “you” is. A jilted lover? Dick Cheney? Me? All of the above? Are they really engaging with the wider world of power and downward pressure, or am I making it up again? It's that first one and that last one that leave me with no other conclusion but the former. The rest are, more likely than not, an intentional obfuscation, perhaps just to keep it interesting, perhaps to keep them from being marginalized as “political rock,” which totally harshes my mellow too.
A case study: on the one hand “Money Matters,” on the other “Your Littlest World.” The first is a hunk of Pixiefied pseudo-epic build-and-squash—quiet on the verse, shred on the break—which does as it must, flinging big hunks of detuned semi-notes just past your head. That third lyric up top goes with this one. So does this: “Cash, credit, debit, or Texas Hold ‘Em / This time, who is the victim?” Uh, sure. OK. Now the second is a hunk of Mary-Chained pseudo-epic doom-sludge—ooze on the verse, magma on the break—which goes as it will, letting spew rivers of molten rock just underfoot. Adjust your lens accordingly. Lyric Two goes with this one. So does “Add things to your little world / You are living in the littlest world / What do you mean, you understand? You’re not listening.” You could say this to any jaded cool kid, anyone shaken with apocalypse-fear or hiding behind a wall of ignorance, or any politico out for himself. It’s got a certain low-level poignancy, but if you aren’t like me, predisposed to see such things whether or not they’re really there, you might miss a wider significance. Assuming there is one.
Now, for our control group: let’s have a look at “You Undecided.” It’s the strongest out-and-out rocker here, throwing down a low-key MC5 squeal and a Dirtbombs stomp, powering ahead through a woodblock-and-cowbell death disco. It’s the most fearsomely alive moment here too, and the one place where the “you” is left without a question. “Saying that your life is complicated / Saying that your money is easily spent / When you say it'll never get better, that's when I say you've never been more right in your life.” 50/50 shot, they’re talking about you personally; the bile here has a firm target, and the rock rises to meet it. None of this is to say the Sisters are entirely without the rock elsewhere. “Why Won’t You” throws down for X and Burma and a heartbeat pump and a slithery hook, a serpentine Middle Eastern figure winding around a pounding drum. “The Light” pulls pure velocity out of a Lee Ranaldo chime and bounce-around boy-girl harmonies. Hell, “The Clock” hits the summit on screaming alone. But so much here rests on formulaic indie tropes (quiet-loud, detuned guitar noises, choruses that keep themselves down for fear of growing too big), and at least half the record could be shunted. It’s hard to escape the idea that the strongest material here has a determined, laser-sighted focus, whether it be on a personal or political target, or on a crunchy hook, and there just aren’t enough of either on The Invisible Deck. They’re engaging, certainly. But with what?