Scary Stories You Tell in the Dark
by Trevor Johnson
Live albums are always so much better in theory than they end up being in fact. Live shows are fun because of the element, because you’ve entered into a contract with performers and perfection is excused and energy and ambiance take over. This is why I’ll never get Phish fandom (aside from the fact that they sound like Phish, which I’ll really never get): you’re constantly consuming a third (at best) of the product when you listen to live recordings. Obviously there are some exceptions to this, but mostly, the environment can’t be simulated; things fall short.
Scary Stories You Tell in the Dark, the latest EP from Donovan Wolfington feels like a live show; it’s intangibly present, in the space around you. Read that again. It does not sound like a live album; it is instead a relatively successful simulation of a live show. The crux of that success is in the band’s approach: a blitzing, relentless roller coaster that doesn’t want you to catch your breath. The New Orleans five-piece is constantly dropping you off cliffs and delighting in your recovery as they swoop in to catch you, mere feet from the ground. Their blooms and pauses, their sheer ups and downs are physical, tangible.
It’s only been about a year since the band reelased Stop Breathing, a record that, at its best, sounded like Cursive on a sugar rush, and in its less successful stretches landed like the crash from said binge. But twelve months later, it is those crafty, overwhelmed and overwhelming moments of explosive sweetness that have led the band’s hand. Scary Stories You Tell in the Dark wants not only to be liked; it wants to be felt. The aptly titled “Sleeping” snaps from one scene to another like the frayed synapses of a dream. It never totally hits it’ apex but also, and maybe more importantly for this band’s wheelhouse, never lets you stabilize, flipping from taunting guitar leads and ghostly synths to tone deafening drum breaks. The track doesn’t reveal itself as an opener until it breaks off without much resolve. There’s barely time for thought as “Quitting” bursts in, the record’s true opener.
“Quitting” is a wonderful confection, a Something to Write Home About B-Side in a post-Relationship of Command world (how many bands tried this formula from 2002-2006 only to have it blow up in their faces?). It’s snotty, ruthless and pointed. The complimenting chorus — “And you take and you take and you take yourself so serious. And you hate and you hate and you hate yourself so much” — is delivered with such force and gusto, laced by both male and female vocals, compellingly overlapped — that it somehow matches the venom already established by the winning currents that run beneath it. That the song ends in under two minutes with the shouted “And I fucking quit,” only guarantees you’re along for the ride. All hands and arms inside the car.
Scary Stories… is about 8 minutes long; it’s essentially one very long, very exciting, very exhausting song. It’s tense and layered and perpetually engaging. Donovan Wolfington have no desire to play with a full deck, or even let you know what game you’ve been roped into. It’s all scattered and all impossible to guess at. When “Alone” shows some narrative heart, it’s through the clenched teeth of sharp leads. “Keef Ripper” mixes blazing speed with surf pop sunshine and dancing Moog to come at you like an evil Tigers Jaw (not a criticism). “Hey Alex” lets you catch a breath with its spartan, bass-only intro, and again with some early clean channel sheets of guitar, but quickly becomes a sort of drunken, destructive take on “Anywhere With You”, all niceties withheld.
And then the lights come up. Five tracks, less than nine minutes. The band has no concern for space, no thoughts of stretching out or settling in. They’re there to work you like a speed bag; to leave you wanting more. Donovan Wolfington uses the EP format perfectly, to hit you over the head and get the hell out while you’re grinning ear to ear and asking “What the hell was that?”