Laugh, It’s a Fright
The best way to get a feel for a band is to hear them live. It’s a great way to start a review, too; the presentation is a vivid description of the group’s power onstage, a retelling of the moment you realized that driving all the way out to see the show was worth it. Sadly, very few people had the opportunity to hear The Chairs live, or at all. The Appleton, Wisconsin band broke up in 2009, not long after the release of their second full-length album, Laugh, It’s a Fright, and became one of those innumerable groups that should have been, and would have been, much more.
The Chairs’ Facebook fan page, populated by 71 diehards, describes the band as if “Wilco and Radiohead met in Andrew Bird’s barn and then invited over Death Cab for Cutie.” And to an extent, that’s correct; at their best, the Chairs combine the emotional presence of Wilco’s lyrics with Radiohead’s habit of exploring fascinating electronic fuzz. Simply being like other bands is not enough, though. They may not have realized it while together, but The Chairs have something more. Next to each easily comparable romp stands another song… a brief, quiet, often beautiful piece, like a shy, genius little brother. These are the pieces pieces that will bring listeners to Laugh, It’s a Fright, and back again.
The first three songs on the album are by no means perfect. The opener, “This Isn’t a Fire Fortress,” emerges from cacophony into lead singer Alex Schaaf’s distinctive voice in a way reminiscent of the beginning of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2”. This song and its successors “Go Ahead, I Dare You To” and “Horse with Hoof Guns” manage to strike a balance between the driving percussion and Schaaf’s delicate voice in a way that makes the songs supremely listenable, and damn catchy. Still, “catchy” only goes so far. The songs seem not entirely sure of which direction to go. A good example is “Horse with Hoof Guns”. While good fun, it leaves listeners confused over what exactly just happened. They are the hallmarks of a band with a lot of potential and innate talent, but ultimately in need of a few more years to really find their voice.
The fourth track, “No Fingers,” is when Laugh, It’s a Fright truly begins. The album comes to a slamming halt, switches direction, and walks pointedly forward. Alex Schaaf’s voice has a Conor Oberst-like quality inherent; he always sounds on the verge of tears. “No Fingers” is a gorgeous exploration of loss and betrayal. The lyrics are poignant and heartbreaking, and the song’s simplicity gives listeners the time they needed to hear The Chairs at their most stripped-down, direct, and beautiful. This is the point where the band ceases to be pleasant background indie-roc. Finally, it makes you sit up and listen.
After “No Fingers,” the hits keep coming. “The Hipster” picks up where the previous song left off both musically and emotionally, dismissing “the pawnshop man and all of his friends” just as they dismissed him. This song is back up to the tempo and energy of the first three, but this time carries with it an urgency and emotional drive they didn’t have. “Crooked Concubines” holds the key to the album, introducing the true meaning of Laugh, It’s a Fright as a celebration of rebellion against the absurdity of the world, and enjoying life even during its lowest points. But the high point of the album comes with “Glamorous Sweat”. This brief song is The Chairs’ magnum opus, celebrating the beauty of what has been lost, and the immortality of things you cannot get back. With lyrics like, “In the night all the sweat is glamorous and holy oil / When it’s dark all the lights are hints of miracles from far away,” this is a song whose effectiveness speaks on its own accord.
Though The Chairs did say they were influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel, that influence goes deeper than music; it’s also in their character. Schaaf’s band is one of the few that deserves to have the mythos of the legend from Athens; they produced something beautiful, indicative of all they were capable of, and then disappeared before their time. Laugh, It’s a Fright is a success not just for the musical space it so powerfully filled, but for the musical space its creators will leave behind. The best way to get a feel for a band is to think about how you feel when you realize you will never hear them again.
RIYL: Neutral Milk Hotel, The Antlers, The Unicorns, Julian Nation, Modest Mouse, Sebadoh, Bright Eyes, The Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Andrew Jackson Jihad, The Microphones, Modest Mouse, Of Montreal, The Apples in Stereo