In 2005, when Songs the Animals Taught Us came out, Roommate had only existed as a live band for a year. Before that it was the solo recording project of Kent Lambert, who'd fled Brooklyn for Chicago a few weeks after 9/11. Lambert had gotten to know a handful of local musicians by the time he started working on Songs in earnest, but only a few of them appear on the album, overdubbing banjo, bassoon, or whatever they could play. Mostly he made it alone in an apartment, and it sounds that way.
In large part this is because the music's dominated by MIDI-sequenced electronics and Game Boy beats—Lambert was short on the equipment and expertise he would've needed to mike a band, and usually settled for instruments he could plug straight into his rig. Of course, the album's "freaking-out-in-a-room feel," as he describes it, is also partly an aesthetic choice. Its isolated, paranoid vibe comes not just from the cold, harsh digital sounds and the close-quarters DIY production style but also from Lambert's alienated lyrics ("The war will start on Monday/We will go to work").
When I got my advance of the new Roommate full-length, We Were Enchanted (on LA label Plug Research), I expected more lonely beeping and postmillennial tension, softened slightly by the occasional acoustic instrument or hard-won moment of grudging hopefulness. Instead the proportions were reversed: the overall feeling is of human warmth, and the record is swaddled in fuzzy, organic tones thanks to a truckload of live overdubs. Enchanted was recorded over ten months at a series of home studios; drums and hand percussion overlap with the programmed beats on several songs, and the digital tracks are augmented by guitars, basses, harpsichord, violin, horns, bells, and more. Back in 2004, when Roommate started gigging, it was usually just Lambert with his Game Boy and keytar—he might be the only person on earth who can play one unironically—and Evelyn Weston on musical saw. In its current form, expanded to include about a dozen semiregular studio contributors and a five-piece onstage lineup, the band is much improved.
"I feel like the themes are still sort of there—paranoia, apocalyptic imagery—but it's tempered with more warmth," Lambert says. "The warmth of the musical aspects." We're sitting at a bar near his Ukrainian Village apartment with two members of the live band, drummer Seth Vanek and keyboardist Luther Rochester, and Roommate's engineering and aesthetic guru, Gerard Barreto. But Lambert, the ringleader, does most of the talking. "Even a song like 'We Are Enchanted' is cold and skeletal, but then it gets real full and warm close to the end," he says. "As a palate cleanser. I think there are conscious decisions."
"Enchanted" is basically an eight-minute series of stacked crescendos, beginning with a stuttering electronic drum pattern, a slow, seesawing riff on distorted synth, and Lambert wearily intoning, "It's been happening a lot lately/Just before I wake up/I see the most terrible things." With each new verse, more sounds accumulate—mostly digital keyboards, but I think I hear harpsichord and saw—and eventually the tension ramps up to a ridiculous level in a passage built on rapid, cycling arpeggios. Then the whole thing breaks open, like storm clouds parting to reveal the sun, and the song turns suddenly, gorgeously hopeful, with radiant major-key chords overlaid on its taut minor-key patterns. "There is beauty all around/Even when we wandered in a terrible trance," Lambert sings. The effect is something like having your most depressive friend ask if you wanna go to the park and throw a Frisbee around.
"I feel like unless all of these incredibly complicated problems get solved by one scientist or something," Lambert says, "I could write songs about how fucked-up everything is for the rest of my life. I always go to music when times are heavy. When I was working on Songs I had a somewhat hopeless, helpless mind-set. But since I've been living in Chicago I started getting involved, y'know—I have a garden plot up the street."
Getting involved in the local music scene has helped too. Lambert keeps a mental list of players who've expressed interest in his work, and if they're available he'll try to recruit them. Pop auteur Devin Davis and jazz drummer Tim Daisy have passed through Roommate's revolving door, and Rochester got involved after he wrote Weston an e-mail praising the band's music; she forwarded it to Lambert, and once he found out Rochester had left Low Skies he made his move. For Barreto and Vanek it started when they booked Roommate to play their old live-work space, the Ice Factory, in 2005; later they reissued the Celebs EP, which Lambert had released himself in 2001, on their Fresh Produce label. (Lambert went with Plug Research for both full-lengths and last year's EP, New Steam.)
When Roommate tours Europe in May, it'll be just Lambert crossing the pond—he's hooking up with a Dutch trio he met at a solo gig in Amsterdam. But even though the group is still at heart his project, one of the best moments on We Were Enchanted is a direct result of his all-aboard philosophy. After a Roommate set at the Hideout, Mucca Pazza guitarist Jeff Thomas complimented the band and was quickly roped into the recording effort. "I had just seen the end of a Mucca Pazza set," Lambert says, "so I wasn't even sure what he played, and asked what he would like to do. And he said he was pretty good at crazy guitar solos." Halfway through the gentle ballad "Last Dreams of Summer"—which sounds like the singer from Interpol crashing a Neil Young session in the 70s, with Lambert's quavering baritone and a lush, piano-driven arrangement—Thomas drops a sick, fuzzed-out face melter I'm not embarrassed to compare to Eddie Hazel's epic freak-out on "Maggot Brain."
But it's the next track—before "Isn't Radio" closes the record in a swoon of grandeur—that best illustrates the change in Lambert's MO. "Night" is a cover of a song by Cody Hennesy, a friend of his who lives in San Francisco and performs as the Rhombus. It not only has the most natural, everybody-in-a-room-together sound on the album—the arrangement is just strummy ukulele, bass, tinkling glockenspiel, and six singers on the chorus—but also its most uncomplicated and optimistic feel. When Lambert and the band sing "We're all real tired of the shitty stuff," the words seem to sum up their determination to survive and even be happy in a hopelessly messed-up world, pursuing the kind of modest, local, cooperative effort that's helped Roommate flourish. "It's good to think about that," says Lambert. "I don't know if I consciously thought about that. I wanted this album to be a bunch of people figuring out what that guy was freaking out in his room about."v
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