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Love Life Nurtures its Own Indefinable Music

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Love Life

By Bret McCabe | Posted

Since forming in 1998, the Baltimore quartet Love Life has explored and refined a dark and distinctive sound that prompts admirers to deify it and antagonists to denigrate it with the same set of labels (goth, art rock, no wave) and bands (Bauhaus, Scratch Acid, the Birthday Party). And its sophomore album--Here Is Night, Brothers, Here the Birds Burn, recently released on Bloomington, Ind.-based Jagjaguwar--probably isn't going to convert the unconverted or disillusion the devoted.

That doesn't bother the band one bit. Drummer David Bergander, guitarist/organist Sean Antanaitis, vocalist Katrina Ford, and bassist Anthony Malat don't come across as people who spend much time fretting over how their music is defined by others. They're more interested in discovering what they can do as a unit.

"I think the music we do is a result of what we feel is lacking in the world of music that we have," Malat says. "The reason that we're creating music is that music wasn't there already. It's because there's a need for that sort of thing."

Malat and the rest of the band are sitting around a coffee table in Ford and Antanaitis' Remington home, where Love Life rehearses. Malat moved to New York a few months ago and returns for practices. At this late hour--shortly after 3 a.m.--he is the most animated and talkative Lifer, perhaps because he has just arrived in town by bus. The recently married Ford and Antanaitis kindly and succinctly respond to direct questions. But Bergander is almost disarmingly silent, his lips forming a slight smirk that makes you think he's trying not to utter the joke about you that is running through his head.

"I'm not talking about a lack in a certain genre of music but the inspiration to be creative at all--just because something is not there, it doesn't mean that you can't make it," Malat continues. "Personally, being compared to any band doesn't give me any satisfaction. I usually don't know about their lives, I don't know how they grew up, and I don't know what they think. So I don't feel any allegiance there. I think all of us have been compared to as many bands that we haven't heard of as we have."

It's an elliptical way to describe your art, but it's indicative of Love Life's temperament. The members take the band seriously (which isn't to imply they take themselves seriously--big difference). With Malat in New York, scheduling time to practice, record, and plan tours is a hurdle, but not an insurmountable one. They're all willing to do what needs to be done to advance the band.

There are things they won't do, however. They're not going to try to convince you to like Love Life. They're not going to explain or describe their music in terms that can easily be reduced to a catchphrase or ad blurb. Actually, they're not really even going to pretend to describe their music. About all they're going to offer is a polite suggestion, which appears in the very last sentence of Here Is Night's credits: "We recommend listening to this recording on headphones."

That is probably the most accurate summation of Love Life's music yet put to print, even if the opening salvos of Here Is Night's lead track, "Listen Loudly," startle your ears when they come through the 'phones. Malat's single-minded bass groove rubs against Bergander's choppy beat, both an organ grind that sets an austere backdrop for Ford's throaty bellow: "Who brews the fires within? Who tells you when to feel something?"

This is not the the sort of music usually thought of as headphone music. Hip-hop albums are headphone jams because of all the mad-blunted wiggles and samples dancing in the background. And certain breeds of boy get off on plugging in for lights-out late-night close encounters with Can, Magma, Ash Ra Temple, etc. Love Life has nothing in common with the sonically dense productions of prog/Kraut or hip-hop. It prefers stark to swanky, focused precision over impulsive flourish. And it doesn't mind a pause of silence here or there, like an untouched piece of canvas peeking through a painting. But Here Is Night is a headphone album because it is an intimate experience, like reading a book.

That intimacy is carefully constructed by the production work that Love Life was able to do on the record. "All of us, separately, had kind of felt that the studio environment that we had been in before with other bands had been rushed," Malat says. "We were never given the opportunity to do a record that sounded like something other than a live performance. And we always felt that we had more to give, because once you write a song, it doesn't end there. We wanted to go into the studio after the songs were written and recorded and see what else we could do with them."

For Here Is Night, Antanaitis added string arrangements that range from Meredith Vayanos' solo violin on "Good for Nothing" to the string quartets on "Be Kind to Me" and "Listen Loudly." The tone of bowed violins and cellos complements Love Life's baroque minimalism, a sound that sounds painted with a fine-tipped brush rather than a pan and roller.

Ford's vocals are multitracked in certain instances, and it's an effect that provides another personality wrinkle to an already charismatic presence. Her agile voice can dive from rich midrange into a subterranean bass. Ford's vocals are often mistaken for those of a man, and when she first started singing that's what she had in mind. "At the time, there were a lot of bands that were cashing in on the fact that they were women and not the fact that they were musicians and that was not the way I felt about it. I was really angry about it, actually," she says. "I just wanted to be one of the boys. So I pushed my voice to be as masculine as possible."

The effort did not come without damage--Ford says she has lost much of her upper register--but it has resulted in one of the more distinctive voices around, as immediately identifiable as Bride of No No's Azita Youssefi. Ford has a haunting delivery, masticating through her lyrics, which favor scenarios that are lurid and extreme without resorting to cheap romance or clinical chilliness. Not everybody can chew through the absurd string of alliterations in "V"--"Vicious villand [sic] are victimizing/ My virgin veins/ Veto versus vice is twice as nice"--without coming across as pretentious, ridiculous, or both, but Ford pulls it off with a natural ease.

That comfort--with the material, the music, and the musicians involved--is what makes Love Life's music work, and why its members aren't concerned with what others make of them. They know what they're looking for and how to go about achieving it. And that is what is important. This--whatever labels you want to apply to the band--is what it does.

"It's not like any of us has sat down and said, 'It'd be nice to make music like this because I've never heard anything that sounds like this before,'" Malat says. "It's more intuitive." In previous bands, he says, "I was never given the opportunity to be more than a bass player--not a thinker, somebody who could say, 'I've got this weird idea,' and just bounce it off other people. Here, we all do."

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