Two hundred people fill a sparsely furnished sanctuary, singing at the top of their lungs. They are untrained singers with plenty of vocal eccentricities. No instruments give the right key or take the edge off the voices’ peculiarities. Stumbling upon a scenario like this would make many people flee for the exits. And, knowing that the lead singer of Chicago-based indie band Cains & Abels had grown up in this tradition, I thought of the torturous a capella as an experience he would have had to overcome to get on with his musical life. Far from it, he told me. David Sampson, Cains & Abels’ front man, considers the unaccompanied hymn-singing foundational to his music making. In fact, these experiences have woven the ethos and sound of Call Me Up, Cains & Abels’ first full-length album.
Sampson grew up Plymouth Brethren. For this denomination, a capella singing was a symbol of the way members craved direct, simple communion with God. “You could sing your head off,” Sampson recalls. You were purely accepted and simply free to participate. “Obviously, sometimes it could get weird, with nobody in a church who officially knew anything about music. We could end up singing really really slow, or sometimes we could lose pitch at every verse and end up singing in a different key. Overall, though, I think the way we sang was very honest and direct,” he reflects.
“I actually like to think about it as kind of punk rock. Like Beat Happening. You should have heard how some of these people sang. This one old guy would start all of the singing. Someone would suggest a hymn to sing, and then he would start it off. Sometimes nobody knew the tunes, so he would just make something up on the spot. It was amazing. He had a loud voice. You could hear it out in the parking lot. If a note was too high for him to hit, he would go for it anyway.”
The authenticity of those voices is still in David Sampson’s head when he makes music. “I remember being young and figuring out from those people how to use my voice in that way,” he says, adding that the Brethren style influences the harmonies he seeks. Authenticity is important to the whole band – they proudly use words like “pained” and “raw” when they describe the music, and their MySpace page proclaims, “We are trying to make the most real and honest music we can.”
Call Me Up doesn’t sound much like church music – it is layered, folk-infused rock music with lots of reverb and instrumental solos (think Neil Young & Crazy Horse).Nevertheless, the honesty and simplicity of the Brethren style are evident lyrically and musically throughout Call Me Up.
The album builds to moments where sound practically swallows you. Jonathan Dawe and Michelle Vondiziano’s background vocals are soothing and pretty, like a lullaby from another room, and Josh Ippel’s guitar is eerie, ringing thick with distortion.These blend with Vondiziano’s cello and keys, the primal sound of Dawe’s drums, and Sampson’s bass to form lush, engulfing instrumentation.It feels oddly similar to how Sampson describes church conferences as a kid, where a thousand people filled a rented high school auditorium and sang hymns a capella.”The silence in the moment right after the last note was an amazing moment. It was like the trough of a wave. You could hear a creaking chair in the corner in a place where a second earlier, you couldn’t even talk to your neighbor.”
Sampson’s voice rides on these waves of backing vocals and instrumentation, a voice that hits the emotions of the song perfectly, without requiring itself to hit a perfect pitch.(Of course, isn’t this what the folk tradition is all about? It reminds me of when Bob Dylan goes all out on The Rolling Thunder Revue, or when Will Oldham sings “Madeleine-Mary.”) “I’m not trying to sing in a traditionally beautiful way,” says Sampson. “I hope that the way I’m singing now has the most in common with the voice I used when I was five to sing the alphabet.”The result is a “super-acquired taste,” Sampson admits, but it has power to grab its listeners.Jonathan Dawe confesses to singing the tunes in his head before realizing they’re Cains & Abels songs. “It’s got it’s own charm,” he says.
Seeking to make honest music, Cains & Abels embrace both harshness and beauty.Visceral, image-driven lyrics, reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel’s physicality, combine with memorable melodies. Michelle Vondiziano says she often forgets she’s harmonizing to disturbing lyrics, because she is so focused on creating beautiful harmonies.
Take these lyrics from “Metal in my Mouth”:
I shoved my hand into a crack in the road
And let cars and trucks roll over my body
I tore a piece of skin off of my finger tip
And gave it to a squirrel to take to her.
Or this imagery from “Killed By Birds”:
For the stone to be thrown
For the bone to be lodged in my soft neck
Each time I pull back the skin
I find the feathers within…
Killed, killed by birds
Killed killed by lady birds
If the lyrics seem violent, it is because the band is trying to communicate something about intimacy. Intimacy is the Rosetta Stone for this album, making lyrics like “lay a hand on my hand” and “I’d dive into a fire if it lit up the phone in my pocket” come together into what Sampson describes as “a big fat universal plea.”
Reaching out, to anyone at all, is a theme throughout Call Me Up. The startling lyric about tearing off skin is actually about prayer, about just wanting to be able to give a piece of yourself to God and know that it got there.The album’s title is also a reference to intimacy.”Call Me Up” refers to what Sampson wanted most in 2006, when a relationship was ending. “I wanted to send that to the universe.”
There are times in the album when pain is quenched, when an answer comes:
And you can never be alone
You are loved by me
And I cling to your heart
I cling to your heart.
Interestingly, Vondiziano singles out this song, “Never Be Alone,” as one of the album’s most musically pained and raw. This makes sense, because harshness and beauty become a push and pull within Call Me Up, and the album reverberates between extremes.The dichotomies are not by accident, because even the band’s name describes a dichotomy.It describes the band’s belief that each person is literally a Cain and an Abel simultaneously: both a cruel, rebellious person and a kind, generous person.
All along the spectrum, beauty slips in. It’s a haunting, engulfing beauty that, because it grows from painful authenticity, avoids anything saccharine. Interestingly, that’s just what happened in Brethren church services, too. “They weren’t bringing beauty to the services in an intentional way,” says Sampson, “but beauty was able to slip in through the cracks.”
Because they have pursued authenticity and achieved a rare kind of beauty, Cains & Abels’ Call Me Up is well worth checking out.Call Me Up is available May 19 through iTunes, States Rights Records, and Southern Records.