Overlooked in the Aughts is an ongoing feature focusing on some of the best albums from the 2000s that haven’t quite received the attention they deserved. Today’s post: Beauty Pill’s The Unsustainable Lifestyle.
Dischord in the Aughts was something many of the label’s ardent fans never saw coming. The beloved DIY label seemed to be going through changes no one was quite prepared to handle. Fugazi, an act who’s importance in punk and independent rock cannot be boiled down into a mere sentence, bid farewell a year after the release of the excellent 2001 album The Argument. The label’s second-longest running band, Lungfish, began to slow to a hiatus halfway through the decade after 2005’s Feral Hymns. Most of the big name acts that called the label home had either broken up (Nation of Ulysses, The Make Up) or left Dischord for major label disappointment (Shudder to Think, Jawbox). The Aughts appeared to be something of a mystery for the storied label.
There’s a message in this history somewhere. For folks who stopped following the label’s releases beyond Y2K because of the lack of any familiar bands, Rachel Burke sung it best on Beauty Pill’s “The Mule On The Plane”:
“Look beyond the things you know.”
Simply put, Dischord in the Aughts provides a fascinating example of a community-bred and-inspired label undergoing unforseen change. It’s not the first time Dischord went through some heady change: the transition from its hardcore heavy catalogue to a range of post-hardcore acts in the mid-’80s is well documented in books like Dance of Days and Our Band Could Be Your Life. Yet, whereas the change at Dischord in the ’80s reflected a post-adolescent maturation beyond the schema of hardcore, the label’s evolution in the Aughts has been something of a family tree. Dischord was no longer an insular friend group of youngsters. It became a group adults with children and more responsibilities than most touring acts endure; it became an extended family tree consisting of newly-minted adults inspired by the previous decades’ Dischord artists; it became a rambunctious, eclectic collective that included dozens of little voices.
One of the more intriguing acts to come out of Dischord the past decade is easily Beauty Pill. Though Q And Not U became the franchise band once Fugazi bowed out, Beauty Pill has a certain ambiguous relationship with punk that’s nearly unrivaled in the Dischord catalogue and downright negligible to overlook. Today, you’d toss Beauty Pill’s sound into the ever-confusing “indie” label without second thought, but a record like The Unsustainable Lifestyle is more aurally dexterous than some commercialized genre term could ever provide.
Released in 2004, The Unsustainable Lifestyle continues to sound like a revelation today. It might not bring about world peace anytime soon, but the kind of musical montage the group created still seems novel today. There are the usual elements of storied-DC post-hardcore guitar work mixed in with some pop-friendly piano arrangements, hip-hop break beats, studio dub experimentation, twee sentimentality and lyrics that span the depths of societal critique, pop music polemics and simply inventive storytelling.
Musically, Beauty Pill are one of the most adept bands to release an album on Dischord. It’s quite hard to find a song as achingly simple and heart-wrenching as “Prison Song (A Love Song Called Will You Come Visit Me In Prison),” where Burke’s multi-tracked vocals are drapped over an acoustic guitar and the spare wurlitzer. And yet, one of the most striking aspects of the song isn’t merely its simplicity, but its lyrics and executed performance: the juxtaposition of a comforting female voice atop the narrative of a lovelorn inmate makes the track that much more memorable.
The ingenious use of lyrical and musical dynamics are, quite unfortunately, something that many bands just don’t quite seem to understand or test out. And Beauty Pill just got it right with The Unsustainable Lifestyle. Be it the cinematic music providing cover for Chad Clark’s homespun story of cool-chasing bands and fans on the opening tune “Goodnight for Real,” or Burke’s sweet vocals serenading an instrumental straight out of mid-’90s emo territory providing the “other side” of a relationship (in all its definitions) on “I’m Just Gonna Close My Eyes For A Second,” every song holds it own in impressive ways.
And yet, despite all of its fantastic qualities, The Unsustainable Lifestyle and Beauty Pull are practically unheard of outside certain circles. Which is a downright shame. For if every music fan who loves Fugazi were to give a song like “Won’t You Be Mine” a spin and hear Clark’s intelligent, insightful and catchy indictment of gangsta rappers, The Unsustainable Lifestyle could have been an early success in the eventual rise of “indie” culture rather than an unheard-of gem.
Beauty Pill – “Terrible Things”: