To Live and Shave in LA - "Flattering Circles of Hell" (The Cortege)
Tom Smith effectively ends the output of his 20-year plan with The Cortège, the final work of To Live and Shave in L.A. Recorded in 2007, as the group recalibrated with an all-star lineup (Smith on vocals, backed by Don Fleming, Rat Bastard, Andrew W.K. and Sightings guitarist Mark Morgan) for some triumphant, cataclysmic appearances, these tracks serve as both a howl of agony and a curse upon the falsely gilded age of complex derivatives, bad math, and credit default swaps. All of the worst fears came true, and some might even blame this music, which would really be stretching it — particularly as it took years to find a label that would release it. But here it is, sigils burned into flesh, into rock, some bad ju-ju for an even nastier age.
Smith is no stranger to confrontational music, as a look at his extensive discography will prove. Apart from being the guy who needed remind us that “R.E.M. = Air Supply” way back in the mid ’80s with Peach of Immortality, and with a fusillade of releases over the past 30-odd years that solidify his spirit of dissent. The Cortège plays, therefore, like the deathbed pronouncements of a thinker too profound for this sphere, speaking in code only those in his severe mind state can decipher. You’re welcome to try, though, across 11 tracks of howling noise, ritual chant and rigorous arrangements, given the propensity for a project like this to fly free. There’s purpose and order here, and Smith’s debauched, seen-it-all-and-will-ruin-the-surprise-for-one-and-all manner of delivering a line will leave many listeners hanging on his syllables, just like one would think he’d want.
Smith lined up all the aforementioned players, along with Nondor Nevai, noise-burlesque chanteuse Misty Martinez, Scarcity of Tanks’ Chris Grier, celebrated tapeworm feeder Gaybomb (playing “magnetic card readers”), and an assortment of other characters from his orbit. Together they trudge down a path inspired by life for the artist, as this material was conceived as a result of the dual pressures of worry and fear; namely, Smith’s father wasting away from cancer and his adult son being deployed to Iraq, all under the sleeping watch of the Bush administration. You’ll be transported to such a climate of unease as soon as the needle drops, the nausea of swirling, ringing chords and electronic gear being pushed and punished as it crawls up the throat of this material, but you can’t retch it out. The complete absence of percussion on the album carries the weight of that work, all the easier to allow the audience to focus on the dramatic qualities at work within.
When you get down to it, this is a more urbane, far less prurient take on the sort of deafening menace laid out by groups like Ultra or Whitehouse or The Sodality years ago, albeit for different intent. There is a method to the storm brewing here, and its purpose is to do more than push buttons. With The Cortège, Smith says all that needs to be said for the times, to an omen of men running until their legs gave way.