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"The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss"

Unless you’re Morrissey or a nun, you’re going to get your heart broken some time. If you’re paying attention, you learn a lesson or two. If you’re focused, you might just take some of that anguish and make something beautiful out of it. Chris Willie Williams has done just that.

In his guise as the recording artist Disclaimer, Willie has taken what appears to be the abrupt termination of a long love affair and crafted 11 innovative, catchy, brooding songs that speak eloquently of his deep hurts. Disclaimer’s last album, <i>Bombs by Night, Balloons by Morning</i> was a patchy affair, consisting of a few brilliant originals, a handful of questionable covers, and some poorly-recorded filler; second time out, he’s got an exquisite sound, consistently high-quality arrangements and melodies, and an honest-to-goodness <i>concept album</i>. It’s like going from <i>Please Please Me</i> to <i>Sgt. Pepper</i>.

If I didn’t know Willie recorded the whole thing at his house, I’d never have guessed it – the sound quality is strictly professional, and the production bears a lot of interesting touches, from surprising samples to vocoder to subtle synthesizers. Especially good are the guitar sounds, with an organic feel, and the nice use of reverb and delay to integrate the acoustic and digital signals. The drums are a bit mid-rangy, but that’s the only flaw in the sound.

Willie’s performances are much improved as well; his vocals not only hit a lot more notes this time around, but also generate some genuine emotion, as in the raging “You Ruined Everything” or the befuddled “God Said, ‘Plastics!’” Not every song works well as a composition, but the sounds are great.

The album starts with one of the best compositions, “Fixing a Hole.” Over a surprising bed of gentle bass and unexpected sproings and beeps, Willie gives us a lilting Irish melody and a litany of his faults. The vocoder seems like a reference to Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” but Disclaimer is miles ahead of the Oxford mopes. “God Said, ‘Plastics!’” follows with a terrific disjointed groove built on a jerky snare-hi hat and dialoging wah-wah guitars. I wish the chorus didn’t wash out into a melodic drone, but even there the burbling synths provide a nice counterpoint.

”Vending Machine” is simply a brilliant metaphor: “My mind is broken vending machine – I can see the thought I want to articulate behind the plastic’s smudgy sheen.” The tuned cowbell fills and Byzantine choral chanting sample provide a thoroughly fascinating arrangement. “Like the Backside of a Bulimic’s Teeth” finds Willie getting minimal, with a harmonically daring bass and light drums shuffle supporting a bare-bones but luscious guitar line. The melody has a nice deer-in-the-highlights tremble that suits the out-of-body lyrics.

The top rocker on the album is “You Ruined Everything,” with a terrific blend of catchy melody and gruff guitar (the digital burps leading into the refrain are a nice touch, too.) The hook built on “I got screwed” is a candidate for the broken-hearted anthem of the decade, and I think it might just catch on. It’s a big letdown to go from that charging energy into the fairly dull “Generic Shoulder Blade Tattoo,” which relies too much on a gentle but unengaging guitar line. The melody is lovely, but the arrangement needs to be fleshed-out. However, the central image in the lyrics (“You can push your thumb through my soft spot and wiggle it around to make me march”) is sure to grab more than one listener by surprise.

A fascinating beat (based on what sounds like a rotary telephone being dialed and a box of coal being shaken) leads into a compelling keyboard instrumental with Chinese harmonies on the piano and then Indian raga sounds that is "Musafa Kisses", but the climax is an unintelligible synthesized recital that cuts away from the arrangement just when it’s getting interesting. The melody is reprised on Moog synthesizer, though, so that makes for good listening. The tempo slows with “De Sitter Horizons,” but the pulsing bass and engaging reverb on the guitar keep things lively, and the singsong melody is boosted by the harmonies on the bridge. The distorted guitar is a nice counterpoint to the rest of the arrangement.

Another brilliant combination of styles is “Hell,” which features a lightly syncopated guitar riff with a latin-style tom-tom beat that grooves right into Superfly territory on the chorus, which features this witty assertion: “In the end, the love you take is inversely proportional to the love you make.” Later verses add wobbly feedback drones and harmonies in a nice touch. You’d never guess from the gentle capoed guitar in “Wrong for the Right Reasons is Still Wrong” is yet another tale of lost love; it ought to be a peppy little dance tune. But the contrast is just right, as the lyrics address the issue of putting on a happy face in spite of it all, and the keyboard breaks are sprightly and joyful, although the oscillating synth in later verses turns ominous.

The album fittingly concludes with the martial drums and grinding riff of “Please Pardon Our Progress!!!”, in which Joe Hinchcliffe’s duet with Willie provide another interesting contrast between wild-eyed agony and firm accusation (which the lyrics also veer wildly between). The arrangement builds with layers and layers of wordless backing vocals, squalling guitars and grinding effects, until a scream from Joe sets off a chant of “Happiness is no longer an option” that builds until the song, and the album, ends with a gigantic sigh of exhaustion.

I’m really sorry that Willie’s been through the sloughs of despond, but it seems to have focused his musical instincts – this is a terrific album, full of creative melodies, intriguing arrangements, and powerful performances.

The lyrics leave an odd taste, though – your typical heartbreak album has at least a little bit of fond reminiscence over the past, or some nice things to say about a lost lover (to make you realize just why the loss is so hard to take), but Willie’s all about the pain. The liner notes include the phrase, “the loss defeats the memory,” but one likes for the memory to get a little bit of playing time. That said, the lyrics are remarkably eloquent, full of striking imagery (a hug that feels like “a handful of cold spaghetti”, “you left me hanging in a noose of smoke rings”), clever wordplay (“fêted, fellated, and then filleted”) and just plain resonant turns of phrase (“I’m sick of bailing water – I’m in the mood for a fucking swim.”)

Chris Willie Williams has done it again, and this album deserves as many listeners as it can find. Please contact Willie and get a copy for every one of your broken-hearted, happily married, prepubescently chaste, or Episcopal priest friends.
- Steve Knowlton, Steve & Abe's Record Reviews


"The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss"

At the time of this writing, this album is actually in the process of being released on that aforementioned record label Dessicant Records: Do Not Eat!, and like a few other web reviewers, I've got myself an advance copy of it. Let me be the first to say that I <i>really</i> hope it actually becomes successful, since <i>The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss</i> maintains a great balance between creative experimentation and pop melody that's really hard to find in modern music now. And although the overall charm of <i>Bombs By Night</i> isn't as apparent here and the sound you could probably call 'uglier' (though the lyrics still very much have that clever twist to them that was really enjoyable before), it's made up for in several other areas - better production, arrangements and even more interesting effects, more variety in singing approaches, and several other improvements that you wouldn't exactly associate any kind of sophomore slump with.

The main thing here, though, is that the material is of even more consistently higher quality, with fewer decent but nothing special throwaways and more absolute classics of home recorded music. The opening "Fixing A Hole" fits into the latter category, and also has nothing at all in common with the <i>Sgt. Pepper</i> tune of the same name. It's very much in the vein of Disclaimer's moodier stuff, pulling off the incredible feat of having the lyrics being a laundry list of what Willie wants to change about himself ('I've got to be less weepy', 'I've got to stop quoting from <i>Simpsons</i>', etc.) sung through a <i>vocoder</i>, and not sounding at all cheesy doing it. The vocal melody is <i>brilliant</i> on here, and there's such neat additions such as a change to a reggae tempo in the chorus and a haunting spoken word break. Even the <i>really</i> short song on here ("Vending Machine") manages to work just as well on its' own as it does in the context of the album, with incredibly distorted vocals and instruments to create a fascinatingly chaotic atmosphere.

Also, "You Ruined Everything" and "Wrong For The Right Reasons Is Still Wrong" are actually improvements over the decent, but less spectacular, fast rockers on <i>Bombs By Night</i>. The former is a great example of Willie using his voice more effectively than before over a catchy distorted indie rock background (so much for the dorky singing on "Bet She's Not Your Girlfriend"!), and you can add his yells of 'I got screwwwwed...' to the list of great hooks he's managed to come up with. The latter is a really jangly tune apparently in the same breakup vein that's actually really catchy <i>despite</i> its' awkwardly paced melody, and where else but on the curiously titled "God Said, 'Plastics!'" could you find such a seamless transition between two guitars battling each other between speakers, kazoo-like guitar soloing and quieter, hypnotizing sections featuring great lines like 'prayer has been reduced to a cheat code'?

The interesting variety in approaches here doesn't exactly stop with those tracks, either. "Like The Backside Of A Bullimic's Teeth (#1: Bats = Bugs)" has a really creepy goth ballad atmosphere within its' guitar line and lyrics ('like the spiders we swallow in our sleep'), and is that a <i>Calvin And Hobbes</i> reference I spot in the subtitle there? Awesome! "Generic Shoulder Blade Tattoo" is a quiet guitar ballad that attempts to befuddle the listener by adding absolutely messed up lyrics to its' pretty atmosphere ('you suck the goo from your fingers, as you discredit my memoirs'), and the best description I can come up with for "Mufasa Kisses"? Middle Eastern-flavored electronica sort of in the vein of Mr. Bungle's "Desert Search For Techno Allah", with unsettling techno beats, keyboard and guitar lines helping to create that atmosphere. Also, that dissonant computer-generated voice ('I don't want to know what you do for him that you never did for me...') is a chilling perspective on the breakup theme covered in a few of these other songs.

And to think, I haven't even mentioned the song that got me interested in Disclaimer, the one I consider a 'lead single' of sorts due to its' inclusion on the Web Reviewing Community compilation I've reviewed. Needless to say, "Hell" is still as classic on <i>Airbag</i> as it was on there .... And speaking of the WRC comp, Joe Hinchcliffe (the author of its' brilliant closing track "Mercury's Star") actually contributes vocals and synth bass on the closer here, "Please Pardon Our Progress!!", a really shattering tune His vocal spots, surprisingly enough, have a haunting, angelic quality that contrasts <i>really</i> well with the abrasive guitar noise of the rest (a combination Willie himself, to paraphrase, describes as the Beach Boys meet the Butthole Surfers), and that incredibly well constructed opening riff (not to mention the dense production) has a <i>huge</i> epic quality that just adds to the drama. And the intense chants of 'HAPPINESS IS NO LONGER AN OPTION!!!' bring the experience to a gripping ending.

<i>The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss</i> isn't completely flawless, though, as excellent as it is. The vocal melody to "De Sitter Horizons" is rather non-descript and rambling, and the slower, mostly boring and repetitive arrangement it has doesn't exactly allow the song to overcome that. Plus, it's unfortunately one of the longest songs on here at over 4 minutes. But apart from that song, I really don't have any specific complaints about this mostly excellent effort - maybe it's a bit too short for me at 37 minutes (discounting the effects-laden hidden bonus track "I Couldn't End It There", which has multiple relaxing melodies to hold my attention), but that's OK, as a concise album will always be more preferrable to a lengthy one with an overly excessive amount of filler. Here's hoping that Disclaimer's really promising career will positively take off, and maybe Willie can bring even more accomplished songwriters and musicians into the mix.
- Nick Karn, Music Junkies Anonymous


"The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss"

“Jesus, what happened?” was the only thought I could come up with when I’d listened to Disclaimer’s new album a few times. It’s not just that his first ‘official’ album is such a considerable improvement on <i>Bombs by Night, Balloons by Morning</i>, but I suppose it also reflected the state Willie was in when he recorded the album. <i>The Airbag’s Lipstick Kiss</i> is not only an album that exudes undiluted anger and bitterness - especially lyrically, although the music has become noticeably less frivolous as well -, but it also makes a point of dissecting its very essence in 11 chapters that leave nothing to the imagination, ranging from the confused (“Fixing a Hole”), to the spiteful (“You Ruined Everything”) and the completely disillusioned (“Please Pardon Our Progress”). It’s pretty obvious that what lies at the foundation of this depressing album is a broken relationship, and the way in which Willie refers to it is often spine-chillingly outspoken, as the sleeve-notes reveal a disheartening series of accusations (“You ruined everything, and you say the pain you’ve cause is ‘exhausting’ ”), pessimist thoughts (“ ‘Still friends’ works for you because we’re defined by distance, decorum and rules <i>you’ve</i> decided”), and sheer defeatism (“Happiness is no longer an option” is the album’s last ‘message’).

Fortunately (?), the whole mess instigated Willie to phrase it as truthfully and inventively as possible. Yes, “Vending Machine” is again one of his awkward metaphors, but it works here, as it seems to work throughout the course of the entire album. Randomly tossed sentences and references have made way for a much more focused, intriguing and merciless approach, with an uncompromising attitude you rarely encounter. One of the reasons why I waited so long to tackle this album was that it felt like looking at a huge, infected, open wound. I mean: “It’s like being punched in the face over and over and over and over. I wish we could be erased and taped over with porn, because my ears are gushing”, and continuing towards an obsession with decay in “so this is what it’s like to rot (like the backside of a bulimic’s teeth”) and self-destruction (“Watch yourself crash into things”), and I should poke in <i>that</i>? The pain was still fresh, the anger white-hot, and the person that’s constantly referred to (but never named) got one <i>huge</i> 40-minute beating. Not only the lyrics have ‘blossomed’, but also the music is much stronger than on the previous release. The production is still quite amateurish by major label-standards, but for my money, only a few minor details could’ve been better (the ‘rhythm section’ deserved to be pronounced a bit more a few times). As for the songs, they’re pretty consistent and most of ‘em would’ve been highlights on Bombs. From the use of vocoder during “Fixing a Hole” to the sometimes confusing/nauseating vocal harmonies of “Please Pardon Our Progress” (by Willie and Joe Hinchcliffe, whose soft, breathy voice was a great addition to the already terrific song), lyrics and music are suitably adjusted to each other. Feeling like a throwaway and having lost a sense of respect is translated into music by the use of voice manipulation, angular accents and sudden rhythmic shifts (making “God Said, ‘Plastics!’” sound like an early, robotic XTC-song) and elaborated distortion (into the short but memorable “Vending Machine”).

The conventional-sounding “Generic Shoulder Blade Tattoo” resembles Elliott Smith’s impeccably crafted and lushly embellished music (and I’m sucker for those vocals), while “Hell” announces itself as Disclaimer’s candidate for “Song of the Year.” With striking imagery (“Your name is stitched into my back, a rejection jersey I can’t get out of” – what a great find), hints of feedback throughout the song, and an uncomfortable vocal melody that’s both sinister and touching (check it out if you think it doesn’t make sense), it’s a song that reveals it’s qualities only after repeated listens. “Wrong for the Right Reasons Is Still Wrong” initially comes off as a novelty track that tries to reconcile Camper Van Beethoven’s silliness with They Might Be Giants’, uh, silliness, but the lyrics only speak of disappointment. In the meantime, we’ve also had “Bulimic’s Teeth,” which tries to hard to reconcile the wordy lyrics with the music and ends up sounding clumsy, and the quite directionless “Mufasa Kisses,” but they just can’t prevent <i>Airbag</i> from making a sizeable impact. After the uneven debut, I wished Willie a sophomore album that would contain the coherence and consistency his first effort seemed to lack and I got what I wanted, but did he? Probably not <i>how</i> he wanted. Maybe the things that have happened taught him how to separate the usable from the lesser ideas, but it’s a fact that this album is indeed – as Steve Knowlton in his surgically precise analysis of the album argues – his <i>Sgt. Pepper’s</i> as opposed to the charming but humble beginnings of <i>Bombs</i> (his <i>Please Please Me</i>). It’s still a bit too early to consider him the savior of rock ‘n’ roll or anything, but if he keeps progressing like this, God only knows what might happen. As long as things run a bit smoother for Willie, and I don’t have to feel like a voyeur each time, I’m already looking forward to the next chapter. Word, Willie!

Note: There’s a hidden track after the grand closing song, “I Couldn’t End It Here,” but it’s somewhat deserving of its bonus track-status.
- Guy Peters, Guy's Album Reviews


"The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss"

Chris Willie Williams' lyrics are like fascinating little stories. He latches onto a subject and harrowingly dissects it, using metaphor and grotesque imagery to express his deepest feelings. Disclaimer's second album is an examination of Chris's pain after the end of a four-year relationship. Song titles like "You Ruined Everything" might give the impression that this is a lengthy put-down of his ex, but to me it sounds like he's just crying in his room and trying to figure things out. There are a few wild swipes at her, and even more regret and self-doubt. Why else would he begin the album with an brilliantly incisive laundry list of his own faults? That particular song, "Fixing A Hole", features an airy electro-reggae backing that's typical of the rest of the album; it's clearly the work of that guy sitting in his room, but intricate and clever enough that you'll barely notice. Those arrangements are the highlight of the album: they vary from the colorful bleeps of "God Said, 'Plastics!'" to the blistering punk of "You Ruined Everything" to the atmospheric jangle of "Hell" to the pure quiet beauty of "Generic Shoulder Blade Tattoo". "De Sitter Horizons" isn't as initially striking, but the watery, gripping arrangement makes it one of my favorites. The album is brilliantly sequenced, too: just as I'm reeling from the wild, melodic "Please Pardon Our Progress!!" (featuring Joe Hinchcliffe), Chris deflates everything with the somber, trembling lament "I Couldn't End It There". By the end, I'm musically refreshed and emotionally exhausted, the mark of an album that viscerally communicates pain without ever monotonously wallowing in it.
- Ben Marlin, CosmicBen's Record Reviews


"The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss"

To create this web-site, I need a form of easy identification to jump to the particular albums on any given page. I usually use the first letter of each word in the title of the album in question. Eg, 'Exile On Main Street' will become 'eoms' in the HTML that's buried beneath the words you're reading on the screen right now. For this new offering from Disclaimer, we have an actual word formed, 'talk'. Several of the songs here lyrically describe a relationship breakdown, so the word 'talk' seems perhaps appropriate. 'The Airbags Lipstick Kiss' is an album with depth, with lyrical meaning and messages. It's an album that makes the listener believe that it matters, an album that you'll keep listening to regularly for years, rather than months. I'm impressed with the sounds created here. The overall sound is relatively lo-fi, but the invention beneath the surface of the production, the attention to detail through many of the songs introductions, very impressive. 'Vending Machine' contains voices and melodies and vocals layered over each other and becomes a very fascinating thing. There's an increased use of electronica or dance technology, the 'bubbles' sounds that introduce the intriguing 'Backside Of A Bulmic's Teeth' are a great touch. 'Generic Shoulder Blade Tattoo' is a very pretty track musically and vocally - clever lyrically. 'Mufasa Kisses', one of the more challenging pieces here, would go down well on BBC One DJ John Peels show, this mix of electronics, noise and melody the kind of thing i'd describe as 'intelligent' dance music, music that is electronic based but that you want to listen to and think about, rather than just mindlessly dance or bounce your ahead along to!

One of this reviewers personal favourites here, along with the distorted guitars of the enjoyable 'You Ruined Everything', is 'Wrong For The Right Reasons'. A wordy song with a fast tempo and a rush of melody, something you really enjoy trying to sing-along with and end up wanting to learn all of the words, even though there's so many, because the tune is just that attractive! The last song proper before the hidden bonus features guest vocals and synth bass by one Joe Hinchcliffe, and I must say, I'm impressed. Uneasy harmonies with voices shifting over each other, yet the effect is absolutely glorious. In a perfect world, 'Please Pardon Our Progress!' and 'Generic Should Blade Tattoo' would be hit singles. We don't live in a perfect world, but the quality and intelligence of 'The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss' indicates to me that Disclaimer really are onto something here. - Adrian Denning, Adrian's Album Reviews


"The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss"

Two years (well, more or less) have passed, and with that passage of time, Disclaimer has (for the most part) grown stronger. In comparison with album the previous, <i>The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss</i> features clearer, more elaborate production, and Willie's singing voice has become more confident. Unfortunately, Willie seems to have decided to leave behind the simple charm of straightforward indie-pop, so there's nothing as immediately ear-ticklingly catchy as "Five Mile Hill" or "Your Bird Is Going to Fly Away" this time (well, on second thought, "Hell" is pretty close). However, he's also dove into the well of art-pop weirdness, and has come back up with some absolutely brilliant compositions.

The album kicks off with the slow electronic loping of "Fixing a Hole", in which the protagonist details his problems through a vocoder. (And that's a good Kraftwerk/Buggles vocoder, not the trendy Cher/Daft Punk Techno Vocoder of Doom.) Sort of like "Fitter, Happier", except where that song really sucked and wasn't really a 'song', this is an absolutely brilliant bit of neurosis captured on disc. In fact, I won't hesitate in calling this one of the best songs of 2003. Cause, y'know, I've heard them <i>all</i>. Even the White Stripes ones.

I don't really want to go through all the songs in detail, because that would entail, uh, work and shit. I'll just summarize the rest: "God Said, 'Plastics!'" makes a reference to Jack Chick. How is that not good? "Vending Machine" isn't one of my favorites, but the simile contained therein is one that I can identify with way too easily. "Like the Backside of a Bulimic's Teeth" is a lot prettier than its title would imply, and Willie hits a high note! Vocally! "You Ruined Anything" features the most melodic use of the phrase "I got screwed" ever, and it has my favorite phrase on the entire album: 'feted, fellated, and filleted'. I'm trying to figure out how to work that into everyday conversation. "Generic Shoulder Blade Tattoo" is reminiscent of XTC's "Knights in Shining Karma", what with its vocal+electric guitar arrangement. And the lyrics are kinda fucked up. 'You can push your thumb through my soft spot and wiggle it around to make me march / You suck the goo from your fingers as you discredit my memoirs'? Huh?

Half two: "Mufasa Kisses" is my least favorite track on the album, being as it's a dissonant sort-of-technoey instrumental, like "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 2", except not as annoying. "De Sitter Horizons" is undermined by its dull arrangement. But then there's "Hell", a brilliant pop song featuring the great turn of a phrase, 'the love you take is inversely proportionate to the love you make'. Track 10 is "Wrong for the Right Reasons Is Still Wrong". It's okay. Finally we have "Please Pardon Our Progress!!!" (featuring special guest star Joe Hinchcliffe), which might be a good song, but for once the production is too claustrophobic and distracting for me to tell. There's also a secret hidden bonus track, but I won't spoil it for you.

So, should I try and finish this with some milquetoast generalization about the album? Sure! Willie's new artsy direction is an interesting bit of turnabout, though I'd hardly call it unwelcome. It's not common that someone can manage both pop and non-pop equally well. So buy the damn album already. - Cole Bozman, Cole Reviews


Discography

The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss (debut LP)

Photos

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Bio

Music critic Chris Willie Williams draws from a lifetime of rock-geek obsession in his music, combining elements of pop, rock, funk, electronica, punk, and whatever else is lying around. The result is witty, emotional indie-pop that's drawn comparisons to everyone from Radiohead to XTC to Kraftwerk.