Originally published in Plan B magazine, February 2008 – www.planbmag.com/shop
Gowns@ The Greenhouse Effect, December 14th, 2007
The Gowns album, Red State, was possibly the most truthful record of 2007. Last year, that nosebleed of a year, its frightening Rorschach of losses and blows, its surreal relentlessness, was best soundtracked by Red State‘s sinister, dronebound poppetry, its chant-in-mitigation to, what – some minor school-bully god of dread, of resignation? Gowns narrated their own trajectory, and ours, shocked and numb and self-medicated as we were, our lives describing, suddenly and intimately, the cracks in everything: in every little thing.
On this freezing, bright-dark December evening, halfway through a beleaguered set, 24 people are watching Gowns. The Greenhouse Effect is full, the staircase outside is festooned with smokers, the bar is three-deep; Zettosaur have already skronked their way through a half-hour’s pleasurable mayhem; and Erika is standing in the corner, facing a crowd of more than a hundred, her eyes screwed shut, her lips brushing the microphone. Her white Mustang beats rhythmically against her hip as it swings, and her hands describe some part of the past spilling out here, again, for us, and only 24 people are watching, squandered randomly among the first 8 rows of a crowd intent on boredom. Join the dots: it spells FUCK YOU.
Gowns began their set with a spoken-word piece. Erika strode onstage, wearing her familiar tour uniform, a torn, home-made t-shirt that reads ‘MY OVARIES ARE A BREEDING GROUND FOR TERRORISTS’, and whispered, clawing at her wrists, images of children and animals minded by maniacs, of plump arms in puppy jaws. Ezra, crouched behind his synth, and Jacob, seated on his bass amp, played pedal hopscotch. Erika’s breath, pushing gently at the air around the PA, began to recall the Lynchian midwesternisms of the record, kids in the yard, a summersworth of lawn sprinklers, as Corey bowed his ride cymbal, both slowly and violently, a lovely cadence growing.
But then, during the second song, as Erika coos ‘and don’t you know that I would never hurt you, you are such… a pretty…. thing,’ the PA fails. The band waits a long time before anyone even moves to help, to begin the song again. And the sound fails once, twice more. This level of frustration is difficult to watch; the crowd begins to move away from the stage. People turn to one another, smirking over their beers, and most never really look back.
Gowns understand the impulse to look away. Seeing is painful, sight reveals far too much for comfort, throughout Red State: ropes hang by open windows, the pattern of a kitchen table describes the unbearably expanding universe. Even light is dangerous. The golden, endless glow of ‘Fargo’ reveals dust and an empty room, waiting for a soldier to return; ‘Take, take all the shine out of me,’ begs ‘Mercy’, which, tonight, is excruciating – Ezra screams until he can no longer be heard, until the sound is utterly extinguished, then pulls needle-tones from his violin, bloody, and drops them to the floor. The last time I saw Ezra, touring with the Mae Shi, his ebullience recalled a cuckoo clock. This show could not be further removed. It’s merciless and unrelenting: very little comfort is offered or taken. All Gowns have their eyes tight shut whenever possible, though the impression is not of an attempt at hiding, but of a preferable internal world, recreated under impossible circumstances, at risk of shattering in plain sight.
No matter where in the crowd I am, the noise is inescapable. During a halting, sinister cover of ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, braving the backroom to get to the bar, I come closer to a fistfight than I’ve been in years. But the opening drone of ‘White Like Heaven’ clusters hope in my stomach, and I push through until I’m inches away from the speakers, saturating. ‘I was sitting at the table and suddenly I could see it, I could see it, I could feel it, I saw the world break open, oh, I could see all of it,’ Erika yells, over the distorted chorale of guitars and violin. Corey’s occasional Bonhamisms find such a home in this song; the drums rattle and bang against my chest before slinking back into the final, utterly absorbing phrase.
Then, over the lovely opening diads of ‘Cherylee’, the roar returns. The sound of the crowd is hollow, like a failing engine. ‘I can’t even see your faces anymore’, Erika calls, as though across a huge distance. In what universe, when a band travels thousands of miles, starts and restarts and restarts a set, a set delivered, nevertheless, unflinchingly, and with such commitment, do you not shut the fuck up and listen? In what universe do you not take every possible moment of this into yourself? You’ve gotta look it in the eyes and say that I don’t believe, you’ve gotta look up out the water until you can’t hardly see. You’ve gotta know. Gowns leave the stage, and the crowd moves towards the exits to smoke, out in the well-deserved dark.