About once a year, I go through an all-Seam-all-the-time phase. It usually lasts a week or two. This year it’s been longer.
Underheard during their 1990s lifetime, and seemingly all-but-unknown today, the Chapel-Hill-born-and-Chicago-bred Seam produced a consistently beautiful and powerful body of minimalist rock over the course of four LPs and an EP.
True to their name, Seam existed along the fault lines between several tectonic plates of 90’s underground guitar music, while not fully belonging to any of them: too melodic and hooky to be post-rock and too rhythmically straightforward to be math rock, their songs nevertheless evince a cool-headed internal logic and tendency to repetition; sometimes playing too fast to be slowcore, there remains a contemplative composure veined through their music that sets them apart from the punk and hardcore scenes that birthed them.
There’s always a judicious, un-showy craft that sets them somewhat at odds with the calculated sloppiness of the indie rockers of the time; and while their guitars get dense and textured, they certainly don’t aspire to the gauzy, trippy layering of the shoegazers; if it’s psychedelia, it’s a greyscale one of ice and granite, not florid fractals. The emotions might be messy, but their presentation is efficiently, precisely sculpted, without an extraneous beat or note.
Maybe it’s the way they couldn’t be easily pegged to any one scene, that has caused them to undeservingly fall through the cracks.
But I’ve got a blog post; if you’ve got the time, join me and we can fill in the gaps together.
Seam frontman, songwriter and sole constant member Sooyoung Park was formerly in Bitch Magnet.
(An aside about that bandname: for many years, the adolescent-jokey meaning of it didn’t even occur to me. The band was part of a scene that produced bandnames like Louisville’s “Squirrel Bait”, so looking for literal meaning seemed pointless. Post-modern irony and all that.
Also, for just a moment, see if you can forget the meaning of the words, and focus instead on the syllables and sounds they contain. Repeat it a few times out loud to yourself, roll the words around your mouth.
The plosive-into-fricative word “bitch”, coupled with “magnet”, divorced from their literal meanings, just feel appropriately abrasive and heavy together, like a sandpaper-wrapped anvil. I thought the name was two random words jammed together to be nonsensical-yet-badass-sounding.)
Contemporaries of Slint and several other US bands trying to liberate hardcore from its straitjacket in the late 80s/early 90s (all it wanted was a Pepsi), Bitch Magnet played around with dissonance, shifting tempos/time signatures, extreme dynamics, occasional spoken-word interludes (sometimes all in the same song), plus some absolutely BONKERS drumming:
(How great is that stunt work at 0m:40s? CGI just can’t put your heart in your throat like that.)
But while Bitch Magnet had a brutal power, it’s the seemingly-gentler Seam who, by upping the melodic and emotional quotient, could rip your heart right out.
Seam songs don’t just have power; they have an imperturbable, inevitable grace.
Seam songs are structural marvels of slow build and subtle restraint; each deceptively-simple-sounding song is a complete journey ending somewhere different than where it began. Instead of the jarring, jagged, artificially-exaggerated dynamic shifts of the alternative rock of the time, Seam songs flow much more organically; like being on the ocean with the waves gradually rising all around you, and you suddenly realize how huge that next glassy swell is; and here it comes, don’t panic now, don’t even think; just ride it.
They also have some of the best-recorded, most natural-sounding drums in rock.
On Seam’s first album Headsparks, some dude named Mac McCaughan was their drummer, before he left to pursue Superchunk full-time:
The sun sticks to my back
It’s so hot, I can’t breathe
It’s so dry, I might crack
Let me tell you, that is a summer in the South right there.
Park often employed a distinctive hushed vocal style; an understated murmur that made it seem like he was whispering painful secrets right into your ear. If the title of the song at the top of the post wasn’t enough to clue you in (and what is WITH all the honey in that video? Did Barry and Levon joint-direct it with Winnie the Pooh?), a frequent Seam topic was the difficulty of interpersonal communication, as well as the old twin reliables of relationship woes and depression.
From “Haole Redux”:
Our bus isn’t coming
And I think I’m going blind
Or is everything losing its color?
I made it clear to you
My sleep is restless
My heart is divided
Quarters, halves and eighths
What I wanted to say
Would’ve sounded all wrong
In that crazy pitch of my
Pidgin, stammering, knotted tongue
“Pidgin, stammering, knotted tongue” is a GREAT line; articulate about inarticulateness.
“Two is Enough” has some lines I’d rank up there with Ian Curtis describing the indescribable taste of desperation:
It’s part of me every day
It’s something I couldn’t say to you
Something that takes the breath from me
Something that makes me angry
Something that’s cheap and dirty
Something that’s cheap and dirty
Something that takes my strength away…
And then the twist that takes all that inchoate internal pain and shame and self-loathing and turns it outward like a knife, all the more devastating for the resigned, gentle delivery and beautiful music:
I blame it on you,
I blame it on you.
Did you notice something about musical structure there? Seam songs often don’t follow the usual verse/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus, pop/rock song format, instead following their own intuition. The rockin’ “climax” is seemingly front-loaded, coming a little over a minute into a 5+ minute song; in the middle, where you’d expect the musical climax, you instead get a suspended bridge featuring the lyrics quoted above (which, admittedly, are a gut punch), after which the song keeps gradually increasing tempo to the end. And yet even with the usual elements re-ordered, it all flows perfectly naturally.
The epic, shuddering climax of “Dust and Turpentine” is placed more traditionally – starting around 2:27 near the song’s center, and continuing through to the end, with Park repeatedly hollering “Don’t tell me what to do” – and sounds to me like the slow-mo tantrum of a glacier. (See? Words fail):
Like a glacier, Seam could be patient:
…and inexorable, as in this Breaking Circus cover that takes the tightly-wound original and methodically, beautifully spins it out to maximum glittering tensility:
Your little heart’s going pitter-pat
Let’s go out, I’ve got money
It’s all the same
It always seems the same
It’s the longest day of the year
And you’re dripping into my lap
But instead of reflecting on the source of my good luck
I’m sinking in the feeling that I’m driving the dynamite truck
…and gorgeously crystalline, as in this instrumental:
You can buy Seam’s albums on Amazon, iTunes, eMusic, or the Touch & Go website; or, you can listen to them on Spotify. I’d say if you are only going to pick up one album, either Are You Driving Me Crazy? or The Problem With Me should be it; but Seam were *incredibly* consistent, and if you like one record, chances are you’ll like ’em all.
BONUS TRACK: Park (now Singapore-based and calling himself “Panther Lau”) has reunited with Bitch Magnet drummer Orestes Morfín; along with singer Cherie Ko (also of Pastelpower and Obedient Wives Club), they are the dream-poppy Bored Spies.
It ain’t Seam, but it ain’t bad: