“There are no constants, / even if we want them.” Perhaps it’s the shift of moving around, splitting apart. Chicago chamber pop duo T & The Wonder are Chicago-based no longer. Now based on separate sides of the States (singer Tavis Balkin is on the West Coast, multi-instrumentalist Patrick McCormack in Vermont) they remain a duo by an effort of will, affinity and determination. Sometimes long-distance relationships do work out…
I digress. Perhaps it’s the shift of moving around, splitting apart, but this post-move single (recorded in snatched December sessions around other practical commitments) sees T & The Wonder swapping between hope and despondency as if soberly walking a coin over their knuckles. The live drums and strings which they used to use might have been surrendered to budgeting and lack of opportunity (swapped for synthetic equivalents); but their bookish, light-touch ascerbity remains. Corsage is, in more ways than one, a withering bouquet of sympathy. Over ticking guitar, and a trapped tinkle of piano Tavis addresses a woman’s disappointment as she ages – lonely, stifled and perpetually stranded. “Is the corsage dried out? / the one that was packed away / with the empathetic gestures / and the tired old clichés?”
As to where Tavis himself stands, that’s not so clear. Sometimes he’s attuned to the pain of the woman he’s addressing – “Does the future disturb you / now that all you have left is the sound / of a lot of empty talking / and the legs that keep walking?” At other times, a growing frustration renders him cruel. “Can you depend on people, or are you just a misanthrope? / When all your lost love makes it impossible to cope,” he sings, softly, like wet leaves massing up heartlessly in the driveway. “You are a shell of a person, / a portrait of depression.” Patrick’s surge of guitar solo – a fuzzy taillight – pulls up a little swirl of blackening anger; but it hangs in the air, as if unsure of whom to fall on.
It sometimes feels as if Tavis’ own involvement in the story can be called into question. Is that a hint of guilt in his ashy, passive whisper, as if he himself might take some blame for this disaffection? “You write me, I call you, / what more can I say?” he murmurs, a little lamely. “These goddamn words only fill space.” He waxes and wanes, cold and kind, over the course of the song, without ever settling anywhere. Maybe it’s difficult to leave the scene of the accident. Maybe he doesn’t want to. Old debts, never paid? Old wishes that never resolved, but still ache on a chilly day?
The b-side, Vespa, flips the situation here – youth yearnings rather than fading middle-age, and this time it’s Tavis sitting in the role of the person about to slide down the lip of disappointment. The song itself sounds gently rapturous, both motorik and rain-dappled: a blurry cushioned wobble of electric piano, a plastic drum splat and a subliminal driving pulse. Just for the moment the daydream is blooming and Tavis can bask in it. “If I had a Vespa I would drive up to your house, / and I could kiss you on the cheek, / and we’d then hang out for the weekend – / but I don’t.” The road throws up its first little jolt, but Tavis is already smothering himself in the romance. “I can feel your hands, your hands around my waist / Your hair, your hair – it’s all across your face.”
You could get caught up in the fervent dreaminess, until you realise how evasive it is. “We could talk about how I had / changed my life direction / and just moved out of the city to a / place where things are pretty. / I don’t know…” Then you notice that as American road-movie songs go, it’s a pretty soft-edged one. Patrick’s fey touches of fluting synth and Kraftwerk buzzes: mimsy soft drinks; staying well under the speed limit. It’s not that Vespa lacks grand passion. It’s just that it’s been filtered down and compacted, firing up that diffident teetering hope with quiet fire and aching to make it real. “Living in the moment we would forge a life together – / and we’d send our loved ones letters, / every day a little better than before.” But the letdown is coming a little closer all the time, and that haunts the song. Weaving through the chorus is a second, nagging vocal line. “When I think it’s not a possibility / I want to leave, I want to leave.” Then you start wondering whether it’s less of a grand passion, and more of a grand, shy, unspoken crush. An entire world bubble-blown from a single fancy.
Two songs of apartness. Two men divided by most of a continent; linked by an ongoing sympathy, writing subtle bruised-petal songs about how the world often lacks such mutual feeling. There’s probably something more to draw out of that, but I’m not going to try. I have the feeling that if I try to describe it any more it will burst, softly, under my fingers.
T & The Wonder: ‘Corsage’
T & The Wonder (no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 28th January 2012
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