Fiestas + Fiascos
By Michaelangelo Matos
Until recently you could count the number of indie-rock tunes about club culture on one hand. But Lifter Puller, an indie-rock band from Minneapolis whose rough-and-ready guitar riffs, hardy snarl, and blocky rhythms make them close kin to Archers of Loaf, have written a dozen of them--a concept album, no less. Their new Fiestas + Fiascos makes wicked fun of rockers, hip-hoppers, and especially ravers as it hurtles through a string of songs that describe the most debauched evening this side of a Fourth of July party at the Kennedy compound.
The cast of characters includes a guy wearing an eye patch with "needle-marked arms like the front man in some grunge band," a "dancer who overdid it with the liquid tan," a girl named Juanita who explains, "You can call me LL Cool J / 'Cause I've been here for years and you can't call it a comeback / If you've never even been away," and a young couple lost in a narcotic haze: "Our teachers they call her Katrina, but really / When you're racing toward sunrise / Katrina's a bit much to say / Now we just call her K / And her boyfriend is the Bass...He's the boy with the pipe in his face." And then there's Nightclub Dwight, the creepy lurker who runs the Nice Nice, the spot where said company congregates: "One night Dwight got all goofy on the roofies / Now they all call him the fiddler on the roof."
Lifter Puller's earlier records, Half Dead and Dynamite (1997) and The Entertainment and Arts EP (1998), poked the underworld with a sharp stick--in fact there are references to earlier songs sprinkled throughout Fiestas + Fiascos--but they've never probed the subject this deeply before. Feeling club life's pull is crucial to understanding it, and Lifter Puller front man Craig Finn obviously feels it, even at his most distantly, sarcastically reportorial. To him warehouse parties and dance clubs and basement keggers and all-ages punk shows are just different responses to the same species of enervating suburban boredom. He understands the seductiveness of becoming a cog in the pleasure machine: you get to take part in something bigger than yourself, but you don't really have to do anything. As he blurts out halfway through "Touch My Stuff," in the persona of a small-time pusher at a rave, "That's the funny thing / It ain't just the money thing / It's a question of community / The liberty, the ecstasy / The love, the drugs, the unity."
But there's also a gnawing sense of rootlessness built into the culture: the pleasures of thumping bass and hard drugs are fleeting by nature, and in trying to hold on to them people let themselves get dragged down a cul-de-sac just as deadly dull as the one they left behind. As a survey of disco's discontents, Fiestas + Fiascos handily buries the Lo-Fidelity Allstars' How to Operate With a Blown Mind, an unbearably bombastic album that sounded like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway with more beats and fewer hooks. The nuanced Fiestas + Fiascos has more in common with Chic's Real People, a largely forgotten classic from 1980 on which masterminds Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers cut down the disco scene that made them famous with brittle sonics and deadpan sarcasm (the closest the album came to a hit was the mocking "Rebels Are We"), losing most of their audience into the bargain. But Lifter Puller aren't insiders, and so are free to roam incognito through the wasteland.
For ambience they add evocative musical details--the cocktail piano on "Candy's Room," the Harold Faltermeyer-style synth horns on "Nice, Nice," the Gary Numan space keyboards on "Manpark"--to their mathy strut, but their greatest strength is Finn's ability to capture in words those scattershot epiphanies that tend to disappear by Sunday afternoon. Aside from Beck, he's the most word-drunk white rock singer since Soul Coughing's M. Doughty. But unlike Doughty, a hipster whose biting irony can't mask his romantic streak, Finn sounds like the only beat that influenced him was getting his ass kicked in junior high. His songs have the pugnacious poignancy of a good crime novel. From the album's staggering climax, "Lifter Puller vs. the End of the Evening": "I'm nailed to the nightlife / Like Christ on the cross / Got a terrible cough / My skin is like see-through / I've been trying to reach you / Dying to meet you / It's too late for liquor / But we could always get some 3.2...Three, two, one / Are you still having fun?" These losers are not beautiful, and their adventures are less than quixotic. But you can understand them, maybe even feel for them.
Lifter Puller opens for Les Savy Fav and Love as Laughter at the Empty Bottle this Thursday, April 6.