album review: party dolls – love wars baby

the district attorneys @ local 506

I’ve decided to get rid of the phrases “side project” and “supergroup”. Henceforth if someone plays and / or writes for multiple bands, they will just play and write for multiple bands. Because, yes, technically, Party Dolls is both a side project — an outlet for Athens rockers the District Attorneys’ frontman Drew Beskin to lay a set of songs that he wasn’t sure were right for the DAs — and a supergroup, drawing members from other Athens bands Tedo Stone, Crooked Fingers (itself technically a side project of Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann), Moths, and Ruby the Rabbitfoot.

But that’s too many words for me, so here’s this: Party Dolls is an Athens rock group whose first record, Love Wars Baby, is a rock and roll record that sounds like rain on the windshield and which would soundtrack my spring nicely if I was in the market for a startling, lovely record about heartbreak. (I mean, that doesn’t mean I haven’t listened to it a lot anyway, it’s just that for once I’m not heartbroken! I am not searching for heartbreak albums this spring.)

It’s an eclectic mix of sounds, all a little hazy like — to take the rain on the windshield metaphor a step too far — the way your car gets when you need to turn on the defroster; the title track, which opens the record, winds up in layers until the guitars and drums kick in, with Beskin’s voice not quite faded out and the chorus behind him not quite fuzzy. The phrase of the title — love wars, baby — fades the track out in repeat and into the shimmer of “Kindly Leave”. Sonically, what stands out for me on this record is the clarity of the instruments versus the slight waver to Beskin’s vocals on all the tracks. There’s an immediacy to it, in the content, metaphorically; the clean sounds and that little bit of distance that happens in everyone’s voice when they talk about a broken heart. The vocals come cleanest and sharpest, on “Kindly Leave”, on the repeated line of oh, still missing your ghost in the first chorus. Ownership of the heartbreak all over this album, right there.

“Indigo” follows, and the guitar lines tumble against the bass lines on the opening, before the harmonies of Beskin and Kathryn Boyd kick in; Boyd’s echoing lines are, well, just that: echoing under and beside Beskin’s lines, a poignant counterpoint to the brash instrumentation. “I Am Not The One You Want” — the most straightforward title on the record — may be the most straightforward track. The guitars and keyboards are muted under Beskin’s voice, singing about how everything was wrong, because I wasn’t in love. If you want your heartbreak served on a platter, this is the track for you (and my favorite on the record). The sound of Love Wars Baby is part of what keeps startling me about it, the way that the band uses their sounds to flatter and support the songwriting, whether it’s overpowering the vocals or laying back to shore them up and put them forward.

“Vampire” is the actual rain on the windshield song, the first single, a Valentine’s Day song for anyone in love or not in love; the best kind of Valentine’s Day song. Cause I don’t mind if you don’t, the chorus sings behind Beskin, who almost spits the lyrics here, over a guitar line that actually sounds like it’s shimmering out of your headphones. And would I be a good Valentine if I sang a good line, Beskin asks, over and over again. It’s part plea, part apology, part quietly spitting rage: the best kind of Valentine’s Day song, pinning the record as the middle track between two sides and, almost, two different feelings.

If the first side of the record is quiet sighs, well, side two opener “Sides” actually begins with an audible sigh; literally, a sigh, and then it kicks it up a knock, one of the more rocking tracks on the record; it’s not a war if there’s not a reason to be free, Beskin says, pulling the song back to the metaphor of the title track. “A Firecracker” is, like “I Am Not The One You Want”, another track where the vocals are laid out for heart-rending inspection. There’s barely a guitar line in the first two minutes of the song, just Beskin’s plea that he’s going to find this girl and get her back, a firecracker in the best way. It’s complimented by a subtle cello line, which is another great way to break hearts.

“After June” is trying to change your mind, and “You Let Me Know” crashes into an answer — nobody’s going to change this girl’s mind, but maybe she’ll let him know. Here’s where the guitars almost overwhelm Beskin, the crashing breaks between verses, and over the tops the them, making Beskin fight to make himself heard. You let me know when you’re coming around, he spits. And Love Wars Baby closes with another song with an endearment in the title, mirroring “Love Wars Baby”; “Sweetheart Moon” is the only track on the record that perfectly matches the aching vocals of the pure country offering on the album with the sounds behind it. The chorus swings with heartache and hope: sweet heart moon, sing a sweet old tune / one that’s so sweet and so true/ there isn’t any heart as sweet as you / fly me home under the light of a sweetheart moon.

It’s the perfect closer to a lush, thoughtful, absolutely aching album.

Drew answered a bunch of my dumb questions about the record this morning, and he’s more eloquent than I am; but this is a really great album, put together by a bunch of really great musicians, and it’s not a supergroup, and it’s not a side project, either. You can get it here. Five bucks, you guys. No excuse not to. Do it.

interview: drew beskin of the district attorneys & party dolls

the district attorneys @ local 506

Drew Beskin, who fronts Athens/ATL bands the District Attorneys and Party Dolls, was kind enough to answer a few questions for me in the wake of the release of Party Dolls’ debut LP, Love Wars Baby. I’ll have a review up later this afternoon, but for now, enjoy Drew’s thoughtful responses to my dumb questions.

Love Wars Baby has a real range of sounds on it — a few real rockers, and some, like “Vampire”, that are a lot more understated. Is there a theme to the album that you feel pulls the varying sounds together? 

Lyrically, all the songs on the album are tied together. The album is about heartbreak and all of the fun repercussions that come with that. These songs were written on either acoustic guitar or piano and as they were brought to the band the tempos and sounds kind of shaped organically and I am not usually one to get in the way of what feels natural as you go through that process when putting together a record.
Related: how do you differentiate the songs that you write for the DAs, versus the songs that ended up on this album? Are there specific qualities or subjects that set them apart?
Almost all of these songs were written in a one month time frame. These songs could have very easily been saved and brought to The DAs but I was in a different state of mind and wanted to do something completely new for these songs. I think the time when these songs were written and how soon I wanted to get in the studio were the ultimate factors in deciding that this should be a separate project.
What’s the most important songwriting lesson you’ve ever learned?
I used to be afraid to write about what I know or things I have gone through. I always figured if I wrote something and it was too obvious that it would come out cheesy. This record was about being very honest and I definitely stepped outside my own comfort zone lyrically. I have learned to trust my instincts more and if I want to be more black and white about my lyrics, I am allowed to do that.
“Vampire” is a real off-kilter love song. What are some of your favorite other not-quite-straightforward love songs?
I have always loved “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain because it feels like a love song but I could be very mistaken. Also any love song Tom Waits has written.
Is there anything about Love Wars Baby that we might not know, but should know when we’re listening?
These songs are all very much related to each other and most of them were written one after the other in the order they appear on the record. Also, Frank Keith IV (DAs, Tedo Stone, Ruby the Rabbitfoot bassist) played, engineered and produced the whole record!
What are your three biggest vices? Three biggest indulgences? Are indulgences always vices?
My indulgences are food, television and sleeping. Everyone is different but for me, indulgences are vices because I usually take them too far to a point where they become dangerous.
You’ve got this new record, but I bet you’re still writing songs, either for Party Dolls or the DAs — what’s inspiring you lately — books, music, film? Any and all.
I am always writing. I have what I think will be the next DAs record written, I also have an albums worth of material for a film that a friend of mine wrote. There is a pop project that I have in the works as well as my first solo album that I am eager to start. I am a film buff as well as a music, television and pop culture junkie. I love True Detective and still can’t get past the fact that Breaking Bad is over. I try to see and hear everything and they are always big influences on my writing.
And to sum up: if you had a time machine, and you could use it to see one show (or tour, or band at a particular time), what would you go see?

I would love to go see Prince and the Revolution with Morris Day and the Time on the Purple Rain tour. I saw them perform for the anniversary show but I would have loved to see them when those albums came out and they were fresh. I also wish I could have seen Big Star and The Smiths.