Life presents a perpetual game of what might have been. Making one choice prevents others from ever happening. But art, at least in this sense, doesn't need to imitate life, as exemplified in the movies Groundhog Day or Run Lola Run. With their latest, DBLSCRT, Durham's Le Weekend takes a similar tack.
"The stuff I write tends to fall into two different baskets," explains Matt Kalb, Le Weekend's anchor. He's had a lifelong fascination with melodic allure and sonic complexity, culminating in fractured, brief to pop-length songs that often twist like licorice. "One basket features lots of changes, no repetition, or very little, and all these different parts moving in a sort of linear fashion. The other basket tends to be pop-ish, succinct. I don't set out to do any of these things. I just end up doing one or the other quite a lot."
Given this tendency, it's not surprising that the trio's second album's struck with double vision. Taking its name from Animal House (the students in the title fraternity were placed on "double secret" probation by Dean Wormer), DBLSCRT is an album of reflected images and similar songs whose paths diverge, like twins separated shortly after birth. It features five mismatched song pairs that present parallel-universe takes on a similar melodic idea.
The concept originated when Kalb realized that, sometime after writing these songs, he had come to a crossroads. Seeing that there were two distinct approaches he could take to determine the tone and shape of the songs, he wondered, why not both?
"I have to do one or the other because I have to know what I'm doing, but at the same time they both have merit," he explains. "I thought it'd be really interesting to approach it where we give ourselves license to write each of these songs twice and do things two different ways. I wouldn't want to be formulaic, like I'm always going to do one thing with a bunch of orchestration and the other will be stripped down. I want them to have a relationship that's understood easily when listening but isn't predictable."
DBLSCRT is a combination of studio- and home-recorded bits that the band and producer Nick Petersen molded into a seamless 13-song collection. There's an opening track, a closing track and an untitled 55-second instrumental; otherwise, it comprises five songs that are repeated with subtly different titles. "Strpwr" becomes "Strwpr," for instance; "Lower Your Action" begets "L(y)a." They're not positioned to create a symmetrical album, either. "Wrong (p)reprise" is the third song on the album. Its counterpart, however, is the first song of the second half.
"Making the sequencing symmetrical would've given too much primacy to the double concept," Kalb explains. "I didn't want it to be predictable. We worked on making ... it sound good so that we had a good sequence for the entire album."
The result is an oddly alluring album that approaches the repetition usually lacking in Kalb's songs in a novel way. There's the familiarity of verse-chorus-verse, only it's spread out against two halves of an album. It's more like a musical, an opera or a symphony, with their recurring musical themes.
The nearly four-minute, tripartite "Sym2" moves from hooky jangle-pop to instrumentally spare vocal fugue to clamorous math rock finish. Several songs later, "Symii" culls the idea down to 54 seconds of choir-like vocals (sung in unison, not the counterpoints of its counterpart) against a backdrop of acoustic guitars and undulating synthesizer. And there's "Jimmy'sTown." On the first half, it's a spare, downtempo instrumental. Its second-half counterpart, "Jimmytown," expands the same intro into an explosive, skronky freak-out that resolves the melody without surrendering its fire.
"Wrongs", the album's most immediate and alluring track, might best illustrate Kalb's one-idea, two-song system. The "(p)reprise" version is a jumble of mismatched parts—orchestral flourishes bristling against slashes of guitar, clangy percussion and bleeping background samples that all come into focus by the cello-driven close. The next encounter is more straightforward, a very good, if rather traditional, indie rock song reminiscent of Archers of Loaf. Its relative simplicity puts its predecessor's abrasion in bold relief.
"In the past, I would set out to make something approachable and then run into sort of the young man's worry about cred, like, 'This is too easy, I better mess this up in some way,'" says Kalb. "Now, even though I kind of see them as separate sides, the complexity and the catchiness, I feel they should both be like the advocate system with lawyers. They should both be trying very hard in the same vein, in the same piece."
An album like DBLSCRT might not have been possible for Le Weekend in the past. The band was originally a quintet, right up until the release in December 2008 of their debut, Suite. The departure of Ben and Erin Ridings (aka Missy Thangs of The Love Language and Soft Company) after the album-release show might have spelled the end. None of Kalb's previous bands—Audubon Park, Hotel Motel, V. Sirin—have survived the departure of members. But within a month, he'd shared the concept for DBLSCRT with the remaining members, bassist Bob Wall and drummer Robert Biggers. Their attempts to translate the old material to trio form proved energizing. While rehearsing for their first post-quintet show, they wrote six new songs.
"What I've found with this iteration of the band is a lot of flexibility," Kalb says. "We play with the material a lot more. With the five-piece, it was much more drill drill drill to get things right, to get things to some single realization of the song. It could sound good and could be fun to play, but it probably wasn't in many cases. It was probably never quite relaxed."
Now things are so relaxed, Le Weekend has been experimenting in the practice space with improvisation. While Kalb's unsure how far or where that will go, the idea seems to be not to circumscribe themselves. That's certainly the story DBLSCRT tells, and it's one close to Kalb's heart. He knows there's more than one way to do things, and he refuses to limit himself.
"I believe that there are a lot of things that are possible in pop music when you do them with conviction," he says. "There's a sort of fiction of thinking always to the lowest common denominator, and that's how you have to build things. I think that in general, people are interested in interesting things."