Intuition is the key to everything, in painting, filmmaking, business – everything. I think you could have an intellectual ability, but if you can sharpen your intuition, which they say is emotion and intellect joining together, then a knowingness occurs. ~~~ David Lynch, renowned filmmaker, director, and television creator.
Time is everything. It governs our schedules and the events around us. It hones our talents and brings us knowledge. It provides us with memories and experiences. It can make us the most optimistic person or the most cynical. And it can help us, as David Lynch so articulately states, develop the intuition needed to see things in ways that others do not – this “knowingness” or realization that not everything is what it seems.
The Bright Smoke over their six years together have developed this intuition, which is displayed on their sophomore full-length (third album overall), Terrible Towns. Whereas most songwriters and filmmakers isolate their projects around a single event or time or blow smoke at the greatness of the city they live in and the people around them, Mia Wilson and Quincy Ledbetter take a different approach. They opt instead to unveil the mysteries of The Big Apple and the impact the chaos the big city has on an individual. They reflect on all the people who have affected their lives, but not always in the brightest light. The album is, as Wilson stated back in February during the release of “City on an Island”, “two middle fingers (held) firmly up to a whole lot of people/places/things/animals/plants/minerals.”
It is this honesty – this intuition – that makes Terrible Towns a standout album of 2015. Whether speaking about unforgiving and unrelenting people on the album’s opener “Hard Pander”, grappling with her surroundings on the epic “City on an Island”, or feeling stuck in a relationship on the aptly titled “Like Video” (which would fit perfectly in a David Lynch film), the songwriting is brutally to the point. Wilson holds nothing back, telling the world exactly how she feels about you, me, and everyone and everything.
It’s not just in the lyrics that the regret, anger, and disappointment can be heard. On the powerful “On Ten”, Wilson’s voice is vulnerable and shrouded in pain, as she recalls the struggles of the ordinary person, which often gets lost in art projects paying tribute to New York City. “Exit Door” is Wilson at her gloomiest, calling people out for allowing greed to govern their lives. It could be condemning people for sacrificing the integrity of their work in order to make an easy dollar.
Terrible Towns also sees something different about the band – more accurately, a new, developing sound emerges. It’s grittier. It’s more layered and less minimalistic than on their previous efforts, yet the brooding, haunting sound the duo have perfected in their six years is retained. Much of it has to do with the two pushing themselves to find new sounds, and Ledbetter incorporating new arrangements into their music and taking chances. The result is an expansive sound that can best be described as quietly cathartic, exemplified by the hallowing yet rhythmic “Shakedown” and the intense, dark “Or”. “On Ten”, as well, showcases the evolution of The Bright Smoke’s sound, as the duo incorporates subtle and hypnotic guitar notes a la Blood Orange that act as the bridge to the brooding, indie-rock guitar solo. Brilliant!
The song that might best exemplify the growth and intuition of The Bright Smoke is the cinematic “Howl”. It’s a slow burning, gorgeous track that perfectly blends the duo’s songwriting and artistic maturation. Ledbetter’s experimentation on the track has resulted in a sound that emotes a wide range of feelings – anger, isolation, regret, hope, sorrow – which balances Wilson’s tender lyrics of someone from her past. The song is epic, stirring, and simply remarkable.
However, the stellar work of The Bright Smoke isn’t anything new; it’s just that people have yet to discover their greatness. Time, like it does with all things, will change this because this band is just too great to be ignored, and Terrible Towns is a stellar album that must be heard.
Read Mia and Quincy’s commentary on each of the album’s songs below.
Terrible Towns Track-by-Track Commentary – by Mia Wilson & Quincy Ledbetter
Quincy: This is an example of a song that evolved drastically from it’s demo to the album version. I can’t begin to describe it. I love all the tracks on the album, but this one is special because it shows our growth as a band. As a producer, it pushed me to the limit.
Mia: This was a country song. Like a twangy, bouncing, yeehaw country song but the message of the lyrics was really important to me. So, I brought it into the studio and was like, “There is a song here, but not how it is right now because how it is right now is a hot pile of down-home garbage. We must rescue the song that is being held hostage in this Toby Keith fever dream.”
Quincy: This was the hardest song to record. We’ve played this song on stage since before we released our last project and we were really satisfied with it. But when we sat down to record it, I added drums and that threw things out of whack in a major way. I was afraid that we would have to scrap it, but Mia worked some magic on the cadence of the chorus and it started coming together. A funny moment is when Mia suggested we add a “circus organ.” A teeny tiny small part of me thought she was trying to sabotage the track so we could axe it and move on, but it actually ended up taking it to the next level.
Mia: Church bells and carnival organ. Trust your musical instincts, weirdos! This song was like pulling teeth to get on record. It did not want to be caught. It’s still a little squirmy about the whole thing, and we’ve moved on from playing it live. Maybe one day it will resurface
Quincy: This is my second favorite song to play live. I love how big the guitars get and how the melodies come together. When we do it live, I try to make this song sound as epic as possible.
Mia: I get to scream at people on this song. I get to scream at them regarding things I feel very strongly about. It never gets old.
Quincy: This is one of my favorite tracks on the album because it’s sweet and gritty at the same time. I like songs that build and go different places and this song does just that. There are so many different guitar textures that we came up with for this song that I was afraid we would show all of our cards. Also, I’m a harmony geek and we got to play with some cool vocal textures.
Mia: This song is extremely hard to sing. We had some come to Jesus moments in the studio where Quincy was like, “you are not doing this well, please do this better.” I have evil plans for a live version of this song that is completely bananas.
Quincy: I got my start making music as a Hip-Hop / R&B producer. (I was well on my way but switched genres before taking off.) When Mia played the demo for me, the guitar line and attitude of the lyrics felt like Hip-Hop to me, so I dug in my old bag of tricks to push the drum pattern in that realm. Words cannot express how much I love playing this song live. It’s one of the rare instances when you may catch me dancing a two-step that I call, “The Quincy Ledbetter Gangster Diddy Bop”. If you want to see it, you’ll have to come to our shows….there’s incentive for you!
Mia: It’s a really good dance, you guys. I wrote this song and thought, “I like this song. This is a fine song.” But what Quincy wrote for it was, in my opinion, incredible. He really knocked it out of the park on this one.
Quincy: My guitar part is sparse on this one, but it was very hard to write. The tone came from tweaking my chorus pedal and a delay that I haven’t be able to reproduce since the day we recorded the track. So, when you’re hearing this song you’re hearing some very exclusive tones in there!
Mia: I gave myself a little pat on the back for the “we’d be Olympians” line because I thought it was clever. I wonder if in 10 years/5 years/6 months I will cringe at that.
Quincy: There are a lot of cool sounds and tones in this track that spawned from experimentation. I ran a mandolin through my pedal board and delayed the shit out of it to get this twangy, slow arpeggio. I also ran a violin through a bunch of plugins to get the cool sounding distortion and did everything I could to make it as big as possible. I’ve tried to reproduce it since then, but haven’t been able to. That’s probably a good thing. Mia had the idea to add the bowed cymbals and that makes the song for me.
Mia: I was thinking a lot about homage while writing this. It started as an homage to a hero of mine, but the lyrics evolved as we recorded it and now there’s really only a hint of that left…but I know it’s in there.
City on an Island
Quincy: This is our first single and the first song that I ever recorded using a chorus pedal I bought many moons ago. Again, this is a song that starts in one place and gradually takes you to a completely different place. The dueling guitar solos at the end are pretty dope. Mia said that she wanted them to sound “industrial”. I still don’t know what that means, but she says we pulled it off. I’ve tried to convince Mia that we should play these dueling solos with our backs to each other like an 80’s hair band. She wants no parts of it.
Mia: I could probably be persuaded. I’m just very tall and very disaster prone. This song is very special to me and I get to use a lot of distortion and solo at the end which makes me feel metal as fuck.
Quincy: I was actually very nervous to record this song when I heard the demo because the guitar line that Mia wrote was awesome and I was drawing blanks on what to add to it. I decided to keep it simple and try my best to make things sound interesting by trying to “thrash” using an e-bow. A weird idea, but I think it came out cool.
Mia: “Ask me again, cause I’m feeling brave” is something I wish I had the bravery to say…but I do not, so it lives in a song that I wrote with a weird tuning.
Quincy: I do this thing in the studio called “Old Man Soul”, where I ruin our songs by singing them as if I’m an 80-year old, washed-up, soul singer. I can do it to any song…..except this one. The best thing about this song for me is Mia’s guitar line. It’s very in-your-face and I tried to write drums that matched. Of all the songs we’ve recorded, this one is also the toughest for me to play live because I do a thing with my loop pedal that I only have one chance to get.
Mia: Every time I feel proud of a song I write, “Old Man Soul” takes me down a few notches. My guitar line on this is fun. It’s distorted and fuzzy and showy. I started getting the idea to write this song after reading an old review on Pitchfork of St. Vincent’s first album. The writer didn’t escape without expressing his distaste for the fact that she’s credited for playing just about every damn instrument on that album. He took issue with the lack of “humility” in crediting herself for doing so, which is just so fucking toxic and dumb. The review rated the album highly (because it’s really an unquestionably fantastic album), but you could tell it just irked this writer that she’s as good as she is. So, writing this song came from a place of, “Fuck that guy and fuck all those guys just like that guy.” However, I love what this song has become live. We’ve got like 4 guitar lines going alongside Karl’s super intricate and huge drumming. It’s thrilling to play.
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