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The Bats - Free All the Monsters

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Artist: The Bats

Album: Free All the Monsters

Label: Flying Nun

Review date: Nov. 17, 2011

In their 30 years as a band, The Bats have made only eight full-length records. There are years, even occasional decades, between the band’s statements, gaps that reflect other musical obligations (Robert Scott is in a half dozen other projects, including The Clean), work, children and family life. Free All the Monsters comes only three years after The Guilty Office, a relatively short span in Bats terms. (It was 10 years between Couchmaster and National Grid.) It sounds very much like The Guilty Office, and, in fact, very much like The Bats have always sounded — a jangle and clatter subdued somehow into melancholy introspection.

As with The Guilty Office, themes of longevity, mortality, memory and loss predominate. Scott is, clearly, thinking a lot about his life, where he’s been and where he’s inevitably headed. “And in the final place, I’ll find you,” he sings, “Where that may be, I don’t know.” In “Long Halls” and elsewhere, he contemplates death with equanimity, singing softly, without much strife, over a warm tangle of guitar and drums. Occasionally, he ventures higher, a little out of his vocal range, into a creaky tenor that accentuates uncertainty and longing, but the overall tone is one of acceptance and calm. There’s not much overt drama in Bats songs. They run along placidly, guitars interlocking, rhythm steady, melodies fragile and tinged with sadness, until they end.

Scott’s main partner in The Bats’ sound, here as always, is Kaye Woodward, whose high, pretty voice sounds just as it did in the late 1980s and whose guitar solos still strike out, bright and unconflicted, from shadowy, minor-keyed verses. When The Bats’ music transforms, mid-song, from moody introspection to surer, more triumphant pop, it is often because Woodward has stepped in, either vocally or with her instrument. Hear her using the rising end of the “Free All the Monsters” chorus as a springboard, vaulting up and away with her guitar over the tune’s gentle undulations. It changes the tone, briefly, from rumination to triumph.

And maybe that’s the secret to The Bats’ appeal, the quicksilver shifting of moods that makes every song, even the fast ones, both happy and sad. “In the Subway,” the album’s standout song, drives hard and fast, its jangly urgency rivaling “North By North.” Yet, the melodic line is built out of melancholy materials, rising minor thirds that peter out and fall backwards in defeat. It’s only the steady pulse of drums, the careening buzz of lead guitar that saves the song from sadness.

You could spend a lot of time unearthing middle age insecurities in Free All the Monsters’s lyrics, the simple things that no longer satisfy, the days that drag on, the years that fly by. It’s all there, observed obliquely but accurately, and without self-pity. Still, I have to admit that my favorite line is the “hey-ey-ey-ey-aye” that brackets each verse of “Fingers of Dawn.” There’s a warmth and assurance in these meaningless syllables, a serenity that transcends any linear narrative. The song is about waking up from a dream, relinquishing an imaginary haven and coming to terms again with ordinary life. It’s an unpleasant process, this daily rebirth and reorientation, but I like to think of the “hey-ey-ey-ey-aye” refrain as the sunlight streaming through the window, making another day of the quotidian struggle possible, even somewhat attractive.

There hasn’t been much change in The Bats’ sound over the years. It’s remarkably consistent from album to album, even going all the way back to Daddy’s Highway and The Law of Things. Yet, with Free All the Monsters, you can’t avoid the impression that this sound has ripened of late, deepened even. These songs still jangle, still twitch, still pulse, but there’s an undertone of serenity and philosophical acceptance that makes them resonate, too.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of The Bats

The Guilty Office

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