Today, myself and fellow writer Xander Paul will be looking at length into the newest album of an absolutely wonderful and equally weird band. Joint reviews aren’t something necessarily common around here, however, they are a welcome break within the classic and personal stream-of-consciousness-type format. Rabbit Rabbit Radio is the riveting duo comprised of Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi, accompanied by whichever musicians will join them on their journeys. Together, they are founding members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Tin Hat, 2 Foot Yard, Causing a Tiger, The Book of Knots, and Fred Frith’s Cosa Brava. Drawing on their love of both art and folk song, industrial and improvised music, along with heart-wrenching balladry, their music is raw, stunning, dramatic, and rich.
Robert: Hey Xander, what’s going on? What do you think about this new Rabbit Rabbit Radio record?
Xander: Hey, it’s all good, I’ve listened to the record a few times and I’ll for sure give it a couple more close listens to let it sink in further.
R: Yeah, I also gave it a few proper spins and I’m looking forward to getting into it. I’ve been a fan of Rabbit Rabbit Radio for a few years now: I think it’s been like three or four years now. Anyway, I discovered them through a good friend who sent me a link to “Hush Hush” (one of their songs from an earlier record) and I was instantly struck by this band. I only later discovered that actually the members were the founders of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, one of my all-time favorite avant-metal acts. I was obviously surprised to see an album drop out of nowhere like this, but it was great news nonetheless.
X: I didn’t realize you had such a history with Rabbit Rabbit Radio, and with Carla Kihlstedt’s and Matthias Bossi’s work more broadly! I can’t say that I have the same experience, so I have been playing catch-up in terms of trying to understand where this new release fits in within the broader chronology of Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and the wide-ranging Carla-and-Matthias universe. Needless to say, there’s so much material out there, it’s been difficult to figure out where to start with these folks. Their musical output is incredibly comprehensive, and draws from such a wide variety of sounds and influences, that it has been difficult for a newcomer like me to draw connections between their different works. As a consequence of that, I have personally been having difficulty with placing Volume 4 within the broader sequence of Kihlstedt’s and Bossi’s output. As a long-term listener, have you found that Volume 4 – The Animal I Am does, indeed, fit snugly within their other works?
R: You’ll have a very good time going through their repertoire, I’ll tell you that much. Now for the question you just asked – it’s one of those ‘well yes but actually no’ kind of cases. I’m not too well acquainted with the duo’s output aside from Rabbit Rabbit Radio and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum: I only sparingly listened to some things, as they don’t quite tickle me the same way as these two outfits do. For starters, Volume 4 – The Animal I Am is noticeably more relaxed in terms of instrumentation and delivery. If you’re taking Black Inscription (the predecessor and one of my favorites) as a reference point, this becomes quite obvious. I also feel that the quirkiness/weirdness/eeriness is visibly toned down in terms of breadth, albeit that its essence is still there. It’s kind of like that otherworldly and uneasy feeling that pervades every Kayo Dot record, even if basically every one is a different style and delivery. The essence – it still being here – that’s the most reassuring fact of all to me.
X: I totally understand the comparison, which is probably even more appropriate here given that Kayo Dot evolved from another, entirely distinct group (maudlin of the Well). It’s tough, even for some of the most talented, historically significant groups, to try something that sounds completely new while staying true to the heart and soul of what made them worth listening to in the first place – dare I sully the holy name of Opeth? I respect artists who take on the challenge of creating novel pieces of work that don’t sound like their back catalogue, yet retain the essential spirit that defines their sound. To turn the conversation back to Rabbit Rabbit Radio, I want to highlight the three elements that you mentioned are toned down in Volume 4 – The Animal I Am. As soon as “Carapace” hit, I was taken quite quickly with the eerie, quirky, and weird atmosphere Kihlstedt’s vocals enact. I found the record on the whole to be haunting, but in a subdued and subtle way. I’d say Volume 4 didn’t quite unnerve like, say, a Sunn O))) album would, and the record certainly isn’t as quirky as a Mr. Bungle LP, but it’s still decidedly off-center.
R: I agree with basically everything you said. Also, you literally stole the words from my mouth – I was about to make a case for the whole haunted vibe and how it’s subdued and subtle. Although, I would like to point out that my case would be made for the diminished dramatic impact – at least when compared to previous works. Of course, the drama is still there, especially when taking consideration of the note at the bottom of the track listing on Bandcamp: ‘This album is about love. It is more thorn than rose‘. I just love the poetic undertone of that succinct remark and how neatly it encompasses the essence of the record. It stays quite true to our ‘subdued and subtle’ assessment too. While I do feel that the oddly languid and uncanny approach doesn’t do justice to the musical lineage of the group, it is articulated with enough of their musical hallmark so that it makes sense at the end of the day as a member of their repertoire.
Honestly, I can’t say I feel the same way about “Carapace” – not when I have other examples, like the aforementioned “Hush Hush”, which blew a hole clean through any of these other songs – strictly in terms of vocal performance. I will, however, concur that indeed the vocals maintain the same emotive qualities as before, even if in a different manner. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to compare Volume 4 – The Animal I Am with a Sunn O))) record or a Mr. Bungle one, but I do see your point. I think what throws me off the most is how easily digestible the opening songs off the album are. All the way up to “The Animal I Am” included, I was feeling kind of cheated, frankly speaking. I felt like the band I knew disappeared and a great sadness came over me. However, I was reassured moving on. “The Linen Sea” was one of the first ones to reassure me, and by “All We Have of You” I was certain that the record would go well.
Another thing that throws me off – but in a good way this time around – is how, stylistically speaking, we’re looking at a very similar blend as other records if we look strictly at what makes up the build. In terms of the proportions between the stylistic elements, things definitely stand differently. I will always respect bands for going in different directions in order to stay away from the pitfall of repetition/redundancy, and especially self-complacency/self-indulgence from an artistic point of view. I’ll circle back a little to the Kayo Dot comparison for this as they are an excellent example. They basically never made the same album twice, and less so in the years that followed since Hubardo.
X: Your description of the group’s ‘liner note’ on Bandcamp touches on what was, for me, one of the most salient characteristics of Volume 4 – The Animal I Am: the lyrics can be positively theatrical at points. Take one of the more overtly spooky tracks, “Spines”, as an example:
‘Winter has come,
Put this picture in a box and
Seal it in between the walls
So you’ll find the elegance in these,
My sad, pathetic falls from grace’
It sends icily cold shivers down my spine. Again, to reference the Bandcamp note, Kihlstedt sings about love for most of the album, but she isn’t just treading down a well-worn path. The lyrics, which are well worth reading even without listening to the music due to their poetic cadences and complex symbolic language, evoke deep feelings of pain, love, hope, and despair. Combined with Kihlstedt’s performances (my personal favorite of which is on “Leaning and Falling”), it’s difficult to listen to Volume 4 and not be consumed by the powerful pathos she exhibits. I feel quite connected to Kihlstedt after repeated listens, but the intricate web she spins on certain tracks, such as the barrage of mostly inanimate objects she alludes to just after halfway through “All We Have of You”, suggests that I have many more listens ahead of me if I want to engage with the material even deeper.
On this note, I’m interested in discussing what you termed the ‘easily digestible’ nature of the opening tracks, especially relative to the middle and latter half of the album. I did notice a tonal shift around “The Linen Sea” as well, and I wonder if this at all has to do with the band’s musical release patterns. For those who may not be aware, Rabbit Rabbit Radio release songs in a somewhat piecemeal fashion to paying subscribers. The group writes and records songs and releases them on an individual basis and, at least in the case of Volume 4 – The Animal I Am, compiles all of the songs together at the year’s end, makes a few modifications, and releases the finished product to the general public.
Do you feel that this strategy at all affects the group’s songwriting process? Would you perhaps attribute the tonal difference between the album’s first couple tracks and its latter parts to the fact that songs are released one at a time, or do you think Rabbit Rabbit Radio smooth out unintentional inconsistencies in tone upon compiling the tracks into one record? That is, is the journey from more approachable tracks early on to songs that might be more familiar to long-time fans of Rabbit Rabbit Radio an intentional one?
R: Well I mean, I wouldn’t expect the lyrics to be otherwise with such a thespian air surrounding the whole backlog of music. Since you mentioned “Spines” and “Leaning and Falling”, I want to also add “Paradise” to the bunch and underline how they make a very fitting ending, how they really remind me of what makes this band great, as well as where the scintillations of its magical charm have the most propensity to touch the listener. I also feel connected to Kihlstedt’s parts in the music but more within the context of past works rather than within the frame of this album. By ‘easily digestible’, I meant that both musically and emotionally there’s nothing that feels particularly dense or heavily layered in any way within the opening section of the album. While musically the density is rather consistent and doesn’t go out of its way though, things shift towards a heavier baggage in the realm of emotions as we advance in the journey.
You make a great point with the band’s process of creating an album, so at least as far as I’m concerned, it might just be the very reason for which we’re seeing the finished product as it is – oddly joined together from certain viewpoints. There’s something organic and disparate in the way the record flows, as do the others, which can also be attributed to this. It can, however, be attributed as well to the nature of the music and how it veers ever so gently into the surreal and the arcane. It may also equally and simply be the fact that the overall layout is a deliberate and meticulously laid out architectural plan for the music, and we’re just splitting hairs in a way that starts to pick up on philosophical leanings. Who knows? Maybe we’re both wrong and it’s just an unintentional characteristic that crystallizes itself as a consequence of the creative artistic process.
X: Those final three tracks are a doozy, aren’t they? “Paradise” in particular stands out, with dense lyrics, an almost aggressive tone due to Kihlstedt sharing the vocal duties, and some muscular guitar work. On a slightly unrelated note, I wanted to highlight the complicated rhyming schemes Rabbit Rabbit Radio employ every so often, using “Paradise” as an example:
‘Leper colony certificate,
Epileptic reconnaissance bullshit.
Enduring pockets of recompense,
A ghoulish cipher of innocence.’
I’m still figuring out exactly what this might mean, but it rolls off the tongue so fluidly while still managing to sound menacing. This tight balance between darkness and beauty (the aforementioned ‘more thorn than rose‘ note comes to mind) is part of what made me dig this record so much. I find the juxtaposition between love and love’s dark side a fruitful thematic playground for artists to explore, if a delicate one. Seeing Rabbit Rabbit Radio succeed in this challenging endeavor, especially over the last few tracks, has been a rewarding listening experience. I definitely agree that it’s quite possible that we are over-analyzing the structure of Volume 4, and that the tonal shifts that unfold throughout the record are entirely organic. It’s this organic aspect of the music that enhances its mystical, otherworldly qualities though, and for me, that’s a huge part of what makes the album an interesting piece of art.
To illustrate, consider “Loving You”, an earlier track. The track is – at first listen – undeniably buoyant, and I would certainly agree that, as a representative of the beginning of the album, the song is somewhat straightforward in terms of the sonic palate from which it draws, especially in comparison to some of the later cuts. However, some of the motifs that contribute quite strongly to the album’s mystical atmosphere are present here – if in small doses. The multi-layered vocal harmonies and cryptic lyrics that totter on the edge of violence (‘So set a trap, stand back/Whistle when it springs/I’ll come, I’ll come, I’ll come dig in‘) are definitely notable here.
With this all being said, and in thinking about Rabbit Rabbit Radio’s songwriting/release process as we’ve discussed it, I wonder if it would be reading too much into the artist and their psyche to say that the album’s transition from less dense/complex tracks into more opaque material could mirror a broader philosophical comment on how people deal with love or with losing love. I hesitate to dive too much into this discussion here, because there’s just so much to unpack or, worse, to misinterpret. When all is said and done, I’m certainly satisfied in that Rabbit Rabbit Radio have created something that has allowed a new listener like me to dive in so thoroughly.
R: I’m glad you brought up the lyrical content and exemplified it along with your thoughts so appropriately. I have something of a tendency to stay away from lyrics in music, due to the fact that – in my view – they either add nothing to the music (or worse in some cases, devalue the music), or that they are so masterfully put together that they can overshadow the music. There’s little in between, at least from what I noticed. I return, yet again, to Kayo Dot, and especially its former incarnation, maudlin of the Well, for a parallel. They’re a great example, just like Rabbit Rabbit Radio, to show us how an album can be made to a high standard with fitting lyrics. Although, I’d wager there are some unique instances where the words dwarf the sounds, but I feel like that’s straying too much from the subject at hand.
This would be the other one particular reason I avoid discussing lyrics, even briefly. Lyrics, from my point of view, and within the context of their respective songs, are either to be brought to something of an epitomic form or at exhaustive lengths. Neither is accessible (or appropriate) for our format here. I usually like to discuss such things at absurd – or philosophical lengths – depending on whichever phrasing you prefer. The way I do it in close quarters opens up another world within the magic of such works of art, which I’m sure requires no kind of introduction, especially for those who engage in similar or identical habits. I do, however, think that for the sake of the object of our discussion we’re probably reading too much into this, although I’d say it’s a very real possibility that the broad structure of the record may as well (whether intentionally or not) mirror this philosophical comment you speak of.
X: I definitely agree with your point regarding the lyrics and their tenuous relationship with the music itself. It’s undoubtedly apparent that my strongest reactions to Volume 4 – The Animal I Am have emerged from my reactions to the vocal performance, and I felt it would be remiss of me to not pay a bit of tribute to the lyrics given their complexity and firm ties to the record’s thematic milieu. Aside from the vocal performance, is there another aspect of the album you’d wish to discuss? I really dug in with the lyrics for a bit but, again, that is probably the part of Volume 4 that caught my interest the strongest.
R: Honestly, I’d probably give something more to chew on in regards to instrumentation and actual music – for the sake of balance – but I do believe that we’ve covered what is fundamental for an experience with Rabbit Rabbit Radio. This isn’t something to be treated lightly, like some shallow offering, nor is it something to be undersold in the relatively unseen aspects of it, and I am convinced we cut to the core of what really counts. That’s pretty much it for me. Would you have anything else to add?
X: Gotcha! I totally see your point, and I definitely agree. For the sake of illustrating that, in reading music reviews on other sites I tend to get bothered when I feel the reviewers miss the whole point of the work in favor of some obligation to describe the same old riffs, drum fills, etc. I agree that we got to the heart of the matter and I’m cool with leaving things where they are.