Euros Childs: Situation Comedy – album review
Release date: 21st October 2013 (National Elf)
Score: 9 / 10
Last year, Euros Childs released the album Summer Special, a critically acclaimed work that earned him a nomination for the 2013 Welsh Music Prize (to be announced in October at the Sŵn Festival). In many ways, Situation Comedy documents a move by Childs into musically, as well as socially, adventurous territory- and he pushes the boundaries of both. The invented world and characters that fill this album offer a very serious commentary on our post-modern world- but Situation Comedy is also highly entertaining, thought provoking, and sonically stunning.
Situation comedies are the shows that you typically watch when you want to turn off your brain- and if possible, laugh at the pratfalls and quirky behaviour of the characters- because at the end of the day everyone needs a laugh. But these TV programs (pick your favourite) are some times written by very clever people that colorize real social issues with satire and still manage to create an entertaining product. The ninth release from Euros Childs, Situation Comedy, is just that- a well-scripted series with a cast of very flawed (yet often very laughable) characters- and it is your new favourite show.
Situation Comedy is a collection of songs that each have a bright and shiny veneer. But below the surface is 11 character studies, and the behaviours of most of these actors are dark, and often deviant (there is actually a very nice spectrum of humorous deviance here). And there is a lot of sex. Situation Comedy is an extremely well crafted album and it is a brilliantly conceived album- demonstrating that Euros Childs is one of the more literary, and relevant, songwriters of the early 21st-century.
In terms of lyrics, composition, and performance, this album- in many ways surpasses the previous releases of the former Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci front man. The characters portrayed on Situation Comedy are extremely realistic and complex, and each song is the soundtrack to their imagined lives. Childs takes on contemporary themes and the worst aspects of western society with his honed sarcasm, but this time out- he sticks the knife right into the characters, both lyrically and musically, and slowly twists it. These are songs about flawed and damaged people- either in search of happiness or just pretending to be happy. Script-wise, Situation Comedy is very rugged territory. The bourgeois struggles of the middle class in the form of second home ownership, the depression of an Avon Lady, child abductors, serial killers, and spouses that engage in cybersex while you are sleeping populate the album. While the topics and themes depicted in the lyrics might be off-putting to a few, they are wrapped in the classic Euro Childs pop and satire, with catchy choruses and hooks aplenty- providing a clever and slick coating of ice over the very dark waters below.
The album was recorded in Bristol, with a group of musicians Childs had never played with before. Most of the instrumentation was recorded as a near-live setup- with overdubs on vocals, flute (Laura J. Martin), synthesizer, and horns (Steven Black, who also played bass). Also included in the cast are Stuart Kidd (drums) and Marco Rea (guitar). Childs played all of the various keyboards on the album and directed the show. And what a show it is. Childs described his anxiety around the first session as “nerve wracking”- but pulled it altogether like a well staged television show- where the audience does not see all of the dirty work behind the curtain, they just sit back, watch, listen, and laugh. And pushing the television metaphor a little further, while many of the characters on Situation Comedy commit despicable acts- you might cringe and want to look away- you cannot look away, and you cannot stop listening- because this album is so damn well written.
In the opening song, Téte à Téte- we are introduced to the basic theme that runs throughout the album- that things are not what they always seem to be. Nearly all of the characters on this album have a dark side. As a jaunty piano tune carries a nice vaudevillian melody, a chirping fellow informs us that “there are corpses beneath my ice rink…” and in a very matter of fact way reminds us that we all have corpses hidden somewhere. This lyrical imagery is dense on this song, as well as the others- and Euros Childs often sings in double-time to the music- because the characters are complex and he wants you to know all of the details and provide the proper context so that you’ll get the joke. The opening line of Téte à Téte is very telling, “I get no kicks from that Olds you’re driving, I want to do so much more than just surviving.” The advance release of the video for Téte à Téte is endearing- and a slapstick introduction for the rest of the program- where the singer is comically degraded- but presses on regardless.
Situation Comedy is very much a tale of our times- and Childs applies his literary approach to create scenes, of malaise and despair in a digital age- but in a highly palatable manner (this sounds impossible- but he pulls it off, believe me). It is difficult to find sympathy in characters that are waiting for the stock market to improve so they can buy a vacation home in the south of France (Second Home Blues), because their country cottage in Wales is just too boring. The promise of affluence allowing the purchase of a weekend home equates with the concept that wealth can buy you happiness. But to Euros Childs, this false hope of happiness is dismissed as, “Another perfect day- Christ they’re all the same.” On Second Home Blues- the narrator might be someone that you know- but hopefully it is not you. And that second home does not make you any happier.
Just when you think you have life figured out and things under control- there is always a kink in the plan. That happens to all of us on a daily basis. When all seems right with the world, you fall in love with a prostitute, or some one that you have ridden the train with for years, but never spoken to, or into a virtual cybersex relationship. Childs spins these tales and themes in ways that are appropriately lurid but not reliant on cliché. The music accompanying the lyrics provide the stage that the characters enter and exit. Recording the album in a “live” setting with a full band allowed each musician and instrument to play off one another. There is a lot of intuitive interplay in the arrangements, but there is also a lot space in the music as well. Nothing is rushed, and Childs and his fellow actors are not thrashing out anthems. The recording is warm and open, providing contrast to some of the cold and dark lyrical themes. The synth comes in only when it is needed and then fades out. Guitar melodies, beautifully played by Marco Rea, are restrained but effective as they often augment the vocal melody. There is no excess baggage in the arrangements- and there is beauty in their simplicity thanks to the expert performances of all involved.
The singer/songwriter genre that Euros Childs is often slotted into is typically an introverted bunch- wringing their hands over every little personal issue. The most introverted (or personal) song on Situation Comedy, is Holiday from Myself, which Childs has described as a song about “depressed singer/songwriters.” Many writers, especially those like Euros Childs are hyper-sensitive to the external world- and at some point all of the joy in life just dissolves because everything is so fucking serious, and every silver lining has a dark cloud. The character in Holiday from Myself is at a low ebb, where “my own voice bores me” and “I’ve been singing the same old shit since 1994.” The music is downbeat and sparse, with a single guitar melody playing against the piano. In Holiday from Myself, Euros asks questions that everyone asks themselves- but no one ever talks about. Wouldn’t it be nice to just be able to change the channel and think about something else?
Most of the songs on Situation Comedy have a layer of social subversion in the lyrics- and there is abundant humor in the cynicism in many of the songs. Humor, dripping in sarcasm, that mocks western excess and hedonism- that’s pretty cool. And totally relevant to the post-modern, post-industrial, post-post world we live in. Ooh la Oona is a prime example of Childs’s smart cynicism, where all people are potential walking advertisements of themselves- and social interaction is a commodity. This is a very poppy and upbeat song about falling for a beautiful woman, that turns on a dime (musically and lyrically) on the realization that “we’re all shopping, and I’m on the market,” with a ringing refrain: “Oh, baby, it’s all economics to me. I ain’t looking for love.” This is a familiar theme in popular music- but in this case phrased in the most clinically precise terms- delivered along with the best beats on the album.
One of the most clever songs from the script of Situation Comedy comes in the form of Daddy’s Girl. The backing track is a classic country waltz, which seems totally out of step with the rest of the album. If you removed the vocals, the song could have easily been recorded in Nashville, with a group of anonymous studio musicians plodding through a country classic. But remember, there are corpses beneath the ice- and in this case the narrative is a tale of a father abducting his daughter from his recently divorced wife. And the kidnapping is well planned, “In a few hours, we should be across the state border. Then I’ll let you out of the trunk and untie you, I promise you.” This dark tale, told against the country twang IS a country & western song in the most classic sense. It’s just been updated and upgraded for 21st-century society.
After several days of listening to Situation Comedy, and while writing this review I found myself thinking, “I’ll just drop in on the best part of the album and listen for a while.” To be honest, there is no “best part” of the album- because every song is lyrically interesting and solidly constructed. But I kept finding myself returning to the last two songs on the album, “Good Time Baby” and the closer, “Trick of the Mind.” Both songs showcase the literary approach Euros Childs takes in constructing a song and highly creative arrangements.
Good Time Baby is one of the closest songs to a rocker on the album- and it’s both symbolically and musically reckless (a la David Bowie). The character is a typical suburban husband and a father who copes with the stress of work and life through a compulsive addiction to cybersex- at one point thinking to himself, “Who needs love? I have everything I need.” But, again, below the surface the feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing catch up with the character (or perhaps he was caught in the act). At almost halfway through the song after listening to some one enthusiastically describe an online sex-life, the music comes to a screeching halt- to the point where you can hear rustling background sounds in the studio. The tension of this moment is thundering- despite the audio silence. As the music resumes, it sounds funereal- and the character’s regret is palpable in the refrain, “You said that you loved me, but that was a lie. That was a lie.” Guilt and shame are recurring themes on Situation Comedy. Some times these emotions are scripted to be laughable, and other times, like in Good Time Baby, they are not. Euros Childs tugs at emotional strings all over this album- and in the process shows us his range and talent as a songwriter.
The closing track, Trick of the Mind, provides the perfect conclusion/resolution for Situation Comedy. It is late. The show is over. The television has been switched off. The scene goes dark and you drift off into a dream world that is a 13-minute long sparse, yet sprawling, song. A repeated signature played on the piano becomes increasingly dissonant (nearly bordering on free-jazz). The overtones of the piano strings create a haunting drone, reminiscent of a Grizzly Bear track. The ambient sounds in the studio return as an integral part of the arrangement. Childs is often cited more for his lyrics than his musicianship- but Trick of the Mind shows genius in his approach to composition and recording. Compared with the rest of the album, the lyrics on the closing song are mixed low, almost inaudible, and the message is simple: Happiness, and all emotions are just a trick of the mind- “…but the joy that you feel that day, you’re pre-programmed to feel that way.” We invent our own realities and emotions- but unfortunately, they are often hijacked by outside influences. The droning solo piano melody is joined by the flute before the song swerves into dissonance. This is the sound of things falling apart. Slowly, Trick of the Mind transitions to a down-tempo rock beat as the electric guitar melody drifts in through an open window, the drums bring structure and pace into the mix, and a swell of choral voices builds. Euros Childs brings us through liminal state of the dream world and back into reality, for better or for worse.
Situation Comedy is both musically and lyrically the strongest collection of songs Euros Childs has produced. This album quite artfully, and convincingly, presents a cast of characters that inhabit a place where maybe bad dreams can turn good, corpses can stay hidden under the ice rink, and we can just skate over the top of them.
Drifting. Oblivious. Laughing.
Situation Comedy will be released on 21 October, and Euros Childs will tour the UK in support of the new album in October and November. More details on both can be found at: euroschilds.co.uk.