Only Trying to Help (Better Looking)
by Tim Den
Style over substance: This war, this debate, this so-obvious-we-shouldn’t-even-be-talking-about-it topic has been more than tackled here at Lollipop. And by this point, I don’t think anyone wonders where myself and our staff stands: Great music is great music, despite genre, fashion, or hype. What we look for in death metal is the same thing that we look for in folk singers: A sense of natural compositional talent complimented by just the right touch of self-awareness. It’s the way a song flows: In aggressive music, perhaps it’s the visceral yet inventive play of polyrhythms and well-placed silences (however miniscule); in “softer” music, it’s often the rolling of a melodic phrase, the inviting yet strangely obtuse chord changes, or the pure joy of being anthemic without resorting to cheese. But as the current musical climate suggests, we live in an era where paying attention is passé and actual craftsmanship sells less records than nostalgia, novelty, and gimmick. Indeed, the war between style and substance – between people who view music as purely cosmetic and people who listen to actual songwriting – has been a losing one for the latter. Blame it on the eternal truth of lowest common denominator or the indie press’ metamorphosis from “the only ears that care” to “undiluted pushers of garbage,” it doesn’t matter. The fact is that jag-offs who put on the right “hip” outfits – sonically or otherwise – in everything from hip hop (Kanye West), indie rock (Modest Mouse), to electrotrustafarian wankery (LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A.) are raking it in because they understand the business of trends. “The people” want what all the cool kids say is cool, all the cool kids are too busy lobotomizing themselves with modern indie press’ untrained ears, and – of course – the indie press continue to retrograde in their ability to detect greatness by furthering their practice of hiring individuals who have NO FUCKING CLUE what a SONG sounds like. What a giant mountain of cyclical dung.
And a guy like Ryan Ferguson is exactly what should be the 40-day rain that washes away all the ignorance, pandering, and apathy that’s clogging ears everywhere, except OH SHIT, that’s like getting into the “how the FUCK did people vote for Bush in the first place!?” debate. You KNOW what’s good and what’s bad, yet you are surrounded by people who blindly want the bad. Only Trying to Help is the ex-No Knife guitarist/vocalist’s second solo outing, and by the Isthmus of Karelia is it an adventurous (and by that I mean it takes you to places of melodic majesty), delicious, savory, beautiful, heartfelt, inventive journey that lingers long after it’s completed. Trading in No Knife’s criminally underrated trademarks of chisel guitar strokes and post-punk beats for acoustic chords rife with subtext and vocal lines that kill you with their details, Ferguson here comes up with song after song of deep affection and choruses that are so equally addictive and slightly awkward, you wouldn’t believe they work unless you heard them yourself. By the fourth time I listened to this record, it was as if their melodic contours had outlined my every emotion and were singing them back to me. In a year where dependables have phoned it in and absolutely no new bands have shaken us down to our boots, Only Trying to Help is about the rarest kind of record you’ll find: Smart yet satisfying.
But as I mentioned earlier, people like myself and Ferguson are on the losing side of things. Not only did No Knife’s clever disguising of elegant pop go completely over audience’s heads, it seems Ferguson’s refining of his skills has been lambasted so far due to entirely aesthetic reasons. “Where are the electric guitars? Where are the post-punk beats?” I’ll fucking tell you where: On No Knife records, which none of you fucking bought in the first place. And you know what else? No Knife broke up. Ryan Ferguson doesn’t have to sound like No Knife. In fact, Ryan Ferguson is pretty fucking good at being himself, a masterful songwriter. He still retains his knack for counter-rhythms (“Introduction,” “Better Off”) and slightly Middle Eastern hooks (“Introduction”), but… what? You can’t hear them now that they’re played acoustically? Now that his songs are slower, you can’t hear the melody? Jimmy Eat World have made a career out of writing sappy ballads, but just cuz “Must Be Friday Night” is written by an ex-post punk guy, you can’t tell that it’s better than “My Sundown?”
I don’t deny that, as myself and other like-minded individuals continue to lose the war, our rants get madder and madder over what we deem as the music world going bananas (much like how Propagandhi can barely believe how America continues to happily shoot itself in the face). And I don’t deny the fact that this piece is much more of a diatribe than a non-biased review. But what else can I do when a record of Only Trying to Help’s caliber proves once again that NO ONE LISTENS ANYMORE!? That it’s almost crazy for a songwriter who actually cares about songwriting to find an audience?
Let us lose. It’s okay. Perhaps the reduction of real music lovers will actually allow us to operate completely outside of the accepted norm, in effect reproducing the musical climate that birthed the underground decades ago. If we are to live in our own small bubble, let us take pride in knowing that a record like Only Trying to Help will forever hold our faith.