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2005-09-20My review: The Crimea - Tragedy Rocks (US album)

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[Tragedy Rocks US album cover]

I won't be saying how I got this album. It's currently available from iTunes and a variety of other digital outlets to anyone with a credit card registered to an American address; if I could've instead bought a CD, it would be in the post. Indeed, I could say all sorts of things about the stupidity of this release schedule... but therein lies a rant for another day. For now the important thing is that the re-recorded, remixed expatriate version of Tragedy Rocks has actually been released!

Credentials and declaration of bias: I've been listening to this band for about three years, and I've been listening to a band that included some current members of The Crimea for a good while longer. I'll therefore be trying to strike a balance between fanboy gushing and more objective commentary...

As this isn't a CD release, I'll just say that the fullsize artwork (a collage of rictus grin, autumn colours and a chap with head in hand) is pleasantly subtle ... and hope that a forthcoming album booklet will include printed lyrics, as The Crimea are a band for whom lyrics are a key part of their appeal. To pigeonhole them by comparison to other bands is extremely unfair, but fans of the Eels (circa Daisies of the Galaxy) and The Flaming Lips may hear similarities.

Before we begin, some general comments: the mix of these recordings is fairly bass-heavy. As far as I can tell, almost all tracks have been re-recorded rather than simply remixed. None are presented in the exact form they've seen previous release as, where that's applicable. And so, without further ado...

I'm not sure instrumental opener 1. Intro was such a great idea. Heard loud, it jars with the opening bars of the reworked 2. White Russian Galaxy if you don't know they're coming—once you do, it'll grow, but on that all-important first listen that's going to convince you to come back time after time... or to buy... it could be touch and go. Old lags in the fandom may also be struck by the plinking (xylophone?) and organ parts the song has acquired. Give it time. My initial notes from when I started this review read "sounds like someone's fucking around with a keyboard in the background" ... trust me, it'll start to gel fourth or fifth time through, if not before.

This would be a good point to interject and flag up a few of the difficulties inherent in listening to an album you already own in different form—in this case, the version of Tragedy Rocks that was available to a few hundred people in the UK by mail-order about a year-and-a-half ago, and the three singles that were released before it. Those recordings might fairly be termed demo sessions for this album. Anyway, I'd just like to note that a) it's a bit of a headfuck, and b) a completely new listener to this 'proper' release of Tragedy Rocks may very well not be drawn to comment on things I will.

Once the new version has settled in, White Russian Galaxy (in a distant galaxy far far away titled Who Knows) sounds as good as ever. It's a charming song about alcoholic haze and befuddlement about what the opposite sex is thinking.

3. Lottery Winners on Acid hasn't essentially changed much either, though someone went a bit wild with effects during post-production. The song opens and closes to tape spool snags, lots of backing vocals are layered into the mix, and there's a whole collage of sound before the final chorus. It's still the lovably twisted feel-good 'couple' song it always was, and now that playfulness extends to the mixing.

4. Baby Boom is a welcome improvement on the original, the haunting guitar line unchanged and what alterations there have been are rewarding. The lyrics have evolved quite considerably since it was called Fred Flintstone, becoming a song that cautions marriage won't magically solve relationship problems.

5. Losing My Hair, a new track, flows seamlessly in from Baby Boom. I say new, but longterm fans of Davey's songwriting will greet the image "peace talks in a cafe" with fond recognition; it's been a recurrent theme since very early days. The whispered backing vocals may freak you out until you realise they're not just your imagination. Answers on a postcard to the usual address for what exactly the song is about, although that may slightly be missing the point: like many of the lyrics here, there are a wide assortment of images and scenes to think about.

6. The Great Unknown is a little less subdued than its original. However, the distinctive piano part is kept to the forefront, and this remains one of the most stripped-down songs on the album. Come to think of it, this is the type of song that keeps record label execs up at night worrying about lawsuits from surviving family members. It's not suicidal as such, but emo kids aren't known for hearing simple beautiful things and being inspired to live.

7. Here Comes the Suffering ... previously known as Ching. Live this is a howling barnstormer, and the studio version captures a lot of that energy. Quoting from Davey's explanation: "Throw another small child on the fire, it's getting cold in here. Mankind is based on a culture of self-preservation and financial status." Another in a tradition of songs that call for people to stop, think and be annoyed enough to try to change things for the better.

8. Bad Vibrations offers some minor lyrical changes, but follows up Here Comes the Suffering as well as it did The Miserabilist Tango on the mail-order album. Again the theme is that things are better acknowledged than swept beneath the carpet. Blissful like the Beach Boys hit its title sends up, with tremelo guitars and haunting keyboards.

9. Opposite Ends has acquired an echo effect on the opening vocals. It takes a few seconds to adjust to, but when the spoken verse kicks in it's more urgent and powerful than I've heard the song previously. It's also gained some new guitar parts, new lyrics and what borders on being a rap section. I've always had rather mixed feelings about Isobel (the title the song demoed under, years ago)—to the point of finding myself inclined to skip older versions of it. I think I'm just not altogether keen on or comfortable with the subject of the lyrics, a couple fighting. I can be in the right mood, though.

10. Howling at the Moon here is hardly changed from the previous version, gaining a nifty harmonica part. One of my favourite Crimea songs, and it therefore comes as no particular bloody surprise that the UK label plan to drop it from their release of Tragedy Rocks. Why? Do they have a vested interest in sending sales to the US and alienating UK fans? They also plan to drop Here Comes the Suffering and The Great Unknown.

In a bit of effective sequencing, Howling is followed by 11. The Miserabilist Tango. Full of wry lyrical sentiment (with something of a Romeo and Juliet theme) and very true to its original recording—there isn't a great deal to choose between them, but I'd opt for the older one simply because it's more stripped-down, and that very much suits the tone of the piece. In either form it's a strong track.

Onward to a song that's traded in a subdued arrangement and is none the worse for it—I adore all versions of 12. Girl Just Died I've heard. This one has extended lyrics, guitar sawing and its harmonica line reassuringly intact. The kick-in of guitars after the vocal bridge could be a little heavier, but it's a very minor nitpick of a fun, poptastic rendition of a great song. (Girl Just Died may be new to anyone who hasn't heard the demo on the White Russian Galaxy single, which was UK only. It is, however, a confirmed and deserved live favourite.)

13. Gazillions of Miniature Violins will be new to most. Short and sweet, with a fade-out that sounds like thunder, preceded by a song that meshes trademark Davey storytelling, rolling guitars and lyrical hooks. In spite of this, some people may view this track as rather low-key: if so, listen again and let me introduce you to the band style that got me hooked three years ago. Pay attention; there will be an exam.

Finally we come to what those who've heard at least one recent Crimea gig will have been eagerly anticipating. 14. Someone's Crying is a song that sucks you in before building to a crescendo, and you which couldn't realistically put anywhere else on the album. I'd like to have heard a slightly fuller sound for the finale (more soaring guitars, more howls, more of everything) but this can be a very tricky thing to achieve whilst keeping volume balance over an entire album. The solution is to get yourself along to a show or make sure that knob on your stereo has been appropriately twisted to the right throughout, as the mix of the album as a whole works best with volume.

Four all-new tracks, a b-side demo reworked to excellent effect, and many old favourites in slightly new form. I'll confess that if I had any say and had to keep to the same number of tracks, I'd probably have nudged out White Russian Galaxy in favour of Utopia (Bombay Sapphire Coma, as it's been more recently known) ... partly because of changes to WRG, but chiefly because I like Utopia that much.

In summary, then, a fantastic album that I'd be inclined to start listening to at track two or three on the first time through. If you're in the US, my advice would be to also grab yourself a copy of the Lottery Winners on Acid EP so that you've got Bombay Sapphire Coma and originals of White Russian Galaxy and Lottery Winners on Acid.

Those of us in the UK, meanwhile, have the looming prospect of being shafted with a release of the US version minus three tracks... three damn good tracks at that. And I know how this will play out... if the album does poorly over here it'll be blamed on weak market interest, not laid at the door of an ignorant pen-pusher. Unless you fancy buying twice (and as much as I love the band and recognise that this isn't their fault, supporting the UK label will only encourage them to pull shit like this in future) there isn't much I can suggest other than to hope things go well in the US and to follow the American release schedule.


Update: in fact, you can get the US release on CD right now from Amazon.com—
a copy from a Marketplace seller will probably be about $8 + $5.50 shipping, which is cheaper than the album in the UK. It'll probably be shrinkwrapped and come with a card sleeve rather than a jewel case until the promoted release date, though, so if that bothers you then wait. I didn't, and am entirely happy with my imported copy.


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