Love songs are, of course, the heart--or, more accurately, the broken heart--of popular music. Whether they are autobiographical stories or thinly veiled tales or imagined fantasies and failures, songs about love (or the promise of love, or the departure of love) constitute the bulk of the popular song catalog, followed closely only by songs about cars (themselves only metaphors for women) and guitars (metaphors for sex) and being in a band (a metaphor for group sex). They exist in such plentiful supply because it's the one universal experience in this world--the quest for a warm body, for a night or for a lifetime.
That dog.'s Anna Waronker writes such songs, and she does so with the unflinching and almost unnerving honesty of someone unlocking her diaries and inviting anyone to read them. She likes to say that most of the songs she writes are self-explanatory--not just their general subject matter, but down to the detailed incidents she recounts (like the time she put on lip gloss in front of a boy and waited for him to kiss her, but he never did).
And so each time a song title is mentioned off that dog.'s second album--titled Totally Crushed Out, which one band member describes as a "teenage romance novel" set to music--Anna Waronker shrugs and groans a tiny "Oh, God." As the woman who writes and, for the most part, sings the songs, Waronker is profoundly embarrassed by the sudden realization that the stories she has written about old boyfriends and unrealized lovers--all almost always mentioned by name--will be heard by other people, especially those about whom they were written.
"In 'He's Kissing Christian,' I'm watching a love triangle between three boys I know, and I'm going out with one of them and having a crush on another one," she says, explaining one of the album's songs. "But there's three boys--one I'm just friends with, one I'm going out with, and one I have a crush on. And they're all fooling around with each other." Waronker pauses, then sighs again. "Oh, God."
The music on that dog.'s self-titled debut, released last year, was small and enormous, haunting and thrilling, gorgeous and angry. It was a study in contrasts--violins brushing against a punk-rock guitar, lush three-part harmonies backed by a breakneck rhythm section, beautifully-sad songs about Richard Simmons and vacuuming hair-cutting machines--with each song strung together until it sounded less like a rock album and more like a little low-fi opera.
But it was very much the sound of a young band searching for its identity, three women (Waronker and sisters Petra and Rachel Haden) and a guy (Tony Maxwell) experimenting with beauty and noise. Like the young girl on the album's cover--this child spreading her arms, her face twisted in anguish or desperation, her mouth wide open as though it were screaming or even howling--that dog. was looking for its own voice. And so every revelation had a punch line, every sad song became funny, every serious word was sung through a cute smile.
Which is what makes Totally Crushed Out such a striking sophomore effort, if only because it is a wonderful thing to watch as a band grows up in public--to hear the voice crack, as it were. The songs on Totally Crushed Out are now so grown-up and weary and wise; they capture the heartache that accompanies a breakup no matter which side you're on, just as they recount how awful and exhilarating it can be to have a crush on someone who doesn't know you're alive. And finally, they are songs that capture why it sometimes feels so good to feel so bad.
"I made the conscious decision to be really personal about the songs this time," says Waronker. "And also, I decided to be very obvious about it. If I was really depressed about getting it out, I wouldn't mask it with something funny. Before, I wrote a lot of the lyrics with a friend of mine, who I haven't written with very much recently, and she's really witty, and I'm sort of the downer of the two of us, so I'm trying to get my own wittiness out.
"I was obsessed with it in my life, so I figured I might as well use it. Maybe I could get over it that way."
The "it" of which Waronker speaks is the theme of Totally Crushed Out--the way in which relationships never completely end, their residue sticking around long after goodbyes are said and tears are shed and the occasional harsh words are muttered. And these could be relationships long dreamed about or ones that are long over, the never-realized crush of which Waronker sings on "Lip Gloss" or the bad choices of the unexpectedly hard-rocking "In the Back of My Mind" or inevitable end of "Anymore" or the unfulfilled love of "He's Kissing Christian" (as in "He's kissing Christian, and it's keeping me from eating").
That little girl on the cover of the band's debut is now the young woman sitting on the cover of Totally Crushed Out, pouting over lost love in front of her mirror, lamenting romance lost and never found. But, as the cheesy and poignant artwork reminds, accompanying the sadness is a tremendous sense of humor.
"I actually thought the idea was funny, the whole concept," says Petra, who plays the violin. "I don't know. I relate. I see how strongly Anna feels about it, and I like how we could all make it work musically and lyrically. I like how we can tell a story through music. I kinda feel like I'm in a children's book or something."
It is a remarkable short story from that little girl to the wise, weary woman whose words lie at the center of Totally Crushed Out. Just two years ago--not long after Waronker and the Haden sisters began performing in Anna's bedroom, spending their spare time weaving their voices and instruments into this rich, haunting acoustic sound--the band released a double seven-inch single on the Magnatone label. Shortly after that, they garnered some radio play on Los Angeles' hep eclectic KCRW-FM, thanks to former KERA-FM music director Chris Douridas. Douridas, working as a scout for Geffen, helped get them signed to the label, and almost immediately they were dropped into the studio to record their debut album.
When the band released their debut last year, they were immediately hailed as the Sassy-est band around, setting off that magazine's "Cute Band Alert" with such songs as "Punk Rock Girl" and "Family Functions" and "Paid Programming"--all beautiful, all rocking, all wry and funny. But there was no mistaking the all-ages universal appeal of that dog.'s music, which was grounded as much in the beautifully orchestrated pop of Randy Newman (whose music was frequently heard in the Waronker household, Anna's father Lenny having been the legendary head of Warner Music) as in the low-fi, no-frills world in which that dog. came of age. There was never anything kitschy or gimmicky about that dog.--their stories being so immediate, their presentation being so otherworldy--and they transcended the "indie-rock" genre sound by being so classic and classical all at once.
"People think a bunch of girls and a violin and Sassy lyrics means that it's a big gimmick or novelty," Waronker says. "They sort of ignore the fact we actually put a lot of time into this and care about it a lot and put a lot of effort into making a record and making the songs."
"And that perception also does apply a lot more to what we were back then and our readiness ourselves to be serious about that," Tony adds. "Now, we've grown up a little bit and we're ready to deal with this."
As a sign of that, Waronker, Petra and Rachel dropped out of college (at least temporarily)--Anna was studying filmmaking at the University of Southern California, Rachel was attending Santa Monica College studying psychology, and Petra studied violin and singing at Cal Arts--to pursue their music.
"What I'm doing now is what I'm supposed to be doing," Petra says of her reasons for leaving school for a while. "Obstacles make us stronger." Rachel describes her school experience as "miserable," though she also insists she will go back.
Waronker is not so sure. Right now, she is content to write the band's songs, doing so on her acoustic guitar and only later taking them to the band to fill them out as "rock songs," as she likes to call them. Rachel and Petra, daughters of renowned avant-jazz bassist Charlie Haden, then add their parts, which only makes that dog. that much more of an unique entity: the bass-playing Rachel, for instance, spends most of her free time listening to classical (Glenn Gould and Arvo Part are two favorites), and her classically trained sister Petra, who recalls spending considerable time at the symphony as a child, adds her part on the violin.
And so the songs are created from these dramatically different places--punk rock assembled by people who do not necessarily listen to it, pop music created by a band that does not really play it.
"But I don't really think of us as a rock band," Rachel says. "The way we all arrange the music, there's definitely rock in it, but it reminds me of movements, and then when Petra plays violin and puts 10 tracks down, it's more like an orchestrated thing. And then there's the electric stuff that comes in and makes it 'rock-sounding,' but even then, the way Anna plays, it reminds me of like a harpsichord or something. I don't know," she laughs. "It's kind of like Bach in a way, the way it sounds."
"We like to rock out, but we don't want to lose the quiet thing," Waronker says. "So I tried to mix everything together. And it actually scares me because they turned into major 'pop songs,' and I'm not sure if that's so great. Well, it's OK. It's weird."
Much of the band's musical growth came on tour last year (on many of the dates with longtime friend and labelmate Beck), during which the band members became confident in their abilities. They found, during the course of touring, that it was easier to hide behind the amplifiers and distortion, that the songs were equally as powerful turned up or toned down.
"We were playing, and we noticed that as we played, the more comfortable we got," Tony explains. "It felt better to play harder and bigger, and the possibilities of the dynamic range we covered got bigger. So we wanted to try to capture that on the record and found it affected the songwriting."
"Before, I would just write rock songs or quiet songs," Waronker explains. "When we started to love to play rock songs, though, I didn't want to lose the quiet songs, so I started writing around that."
That dog.'s sound now is as beautiful as it is bracing, a flesh-and-blood sound that's as tangible as emotion itself. If Totally Crushed Out is indeed a theme album, bound together by the concept of failed love affairs and the inability to put back together a fragile heart broken into a thousand pieces, then it is also a celebration: Tomorrow is a new day, and there's still hope. And so the songs are cathartic, mean, hopeful, touching, sometimes painful to listen to because they are familiar. It is a record on which girls become women and boys become men, and it draws the line separating a crush from truest love.
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Originally, when Waronker set out to write the songs for the band's second album, the farthest thing from her mind was creating a concept album. Rather, it evolved over time, as she began noticing how she would write about only two subjects--"crushes and breakups," she says. And so, rather than shy away from the material, the band decided to embrace it, going with the concept album, from its teenage romance novel cover to the words and music contained within.
"I originally didn't want to write love songs, and then I didn't have a choice," Waronker says with a slight laugh. "I thought we should make sort of a joke about it. I had five broken hearts at one time. I had a few going at one time."
"She actually has many hearts," Tony adds. "It's very interesting."
"Yeah," Waronker shrugs, "and they're all broken in five different places."
Ultimately, Waronker chose to write the song cycle that makes up Totally Crushed Out because it made her feel better to exorcise the demons of old relationships and love affairs that were never meant to be. For the listener, it serves a very similar function--to hear this record, to step into its songs and assume its characters' hurt and heartbreak, is to feel slightly better because there's someone out there who feels damned awful. In that respect, Totally Crushed Out is the Where Are You? for the modern age, as deep and as sad as any Frank Sinatra concept album best heard in the wee small hours of the morning in the loneliest bar in the world.
"That's why I'm here," Waronker says, "to make other people feel better because I feel worse." And she laughs. "Oh, God.