The easiest way to take the pressure of writing a catchy hook off of yourself is to not write any hooks at all. Portland’s Talkdemonic has crafted three records of short, punchy songs, most of them under three minutes, that almost never feature repeating parts.
“The length of the songs has always had to do with my attention span,” Kevin O’Connor, one half of the duo, says. “I like things to hit and then move on. I think the most precious moments in songs are the ones that happen once, that are not really exploited. We definitely get razzed about that. But I don’t care.”
O’Connor described his band’s music at one point as “folktronic hop,” a relatively blunt and goofy term to explain Talkdemonic’s all-instrumental mix of IDM electronics, hip-hop beats and acoustic instruments like guitars and banjos. Add in Lisa Molinaro’s aching viola parts and random other string arrangements, and the duo’s material is suddenly unclassifiable. “Folktronic hop” becomes as good a term as any.
“Mutiny Sunshine” came first, in 2004, and afterwards O’Connor asked Molinaro, who had only been sporadically contributing at the time, to become a full-time member of the band. “Beat Romantic,” Talkdemonic’s second record, its first featuring O’Connor and Molinaro as a collaborative writing duo, came in 2006, and its flawless blending of instruments and styles brilliantly avoids the pitfalls of incoherence that one would expect. The songs are short, but the record isn’t choppy—more than anything, it comes off as one piece of music, a little melancholy, seemingly solitary and almost dangerously precise. Vocals would simply skew the effect; they’re not missed at any moment, and, in fact, once you’re halfway through the record they would seem offensive, given how well everything else works.
“Eyes at Half Mast,” Talkdemonic’s just-released third record, on Arena Rock, is a little darker, even meaner, than the duo’s previous output. The same elements are present, but there’s much more brooding and aggressive catharsis. In whole, the new album is “Beat Romantic”’s equal, but they are very different records in execution—while “Beat Romantic” is a late-night, relaxed endeavor, “Eyes at Half Mast” at times breathes fire.
“I think for us the live show has always been something that we wanted to capture on record,” O’Connor says. “We were trying to make it so the new album had a new element, a little louder and a little aggressive and intense. ‘Beat Romantic’ lacked the ferociousness we have live. It’s not hypnotizing—it’s more in your face.”
The joy in instrumental music, of course, especially of this kind, is found in the absence of lyrics, which in essence do the work for you. The effect an instrumental song has on the listener is much more personal—no one’s reaction can possibly be exactly the same. Everyone has his own memories—of joy, of sorrow, regret, peace. What creeps into our consciousness while listening to a record like “Eyes at Half Mast,” or like “Beat Romantic,” is our own to keep. It doesn’t even include the musicians; ultimately, it’s the band’s gift to us. O’Connor agrees, “I think instrumental music, it allows people to sort of do what they want with it, apply whatever emotions to it, because they’re not being directed by lyrics.”
For O’Connor, “Eyes at Half Mast,” its writing process and final result, is an emotionally wrenching experience. His father passed away before he started work on it and, he says, he struggled for a year with the loss. “The new album is focused on grief, desperation, disappointment, an overall feeling of sadness,” he says frankly. “I lost my father, I did a lot of soul-searching, and I sunk a lot of that into the music.”
He continues, “Some of the songs are painful to listen to still, there’s just such a strong connection to what they mean to me still… I think it’s also hard to share music like this, that’s so deeply personal. The reviews are not always awesome, but that’s the nature of playing music. It’s kind of like, ‘Well, fuck you. I just put everything on the line, and you dumped on it.’”
O’Connor says he and Molinaro are looking forward to progression. “I think we’ve gone through growth on a lot of levels, personally with each other, but musically as well. I think this third album has capped what we’ve done so far. Whatever we do will be weirder and louder. I mean, we’ve taken melodic expansion to the Nth degree. The new songs are more aggressive, more rocking. But…you can never really predict what you will do musically.”
October 7 at Schubas, 3159 North Southport, (773)525-2508, at 9pm. $8.
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