Album Review: La Dispute – Rooms of the House

A friend of mine at West Point recently told me a helpful bit of military advice: don’t get fancy. What he meant was that all up-and-coming tacticians are first taught to learn basic military strategies; otherwise they will make disastrous calls in the interests of devising what they believe to be an ingenious plan. It’s advice that can be applied to many aspects of life, with music possibly being the best place for this concept to settle. Anyone who’s suffered through countless “progressive” or “post-whatever” albums will know that far too many bands, usually young and inexperienced ones, will strive to be unique or unconventional before grasping the basics of how to write a song, which then leads to a derivate, boring, album that doesn’t develop any of the band’s ideas, interesting as they may be when first conceived. La Dispute used to be one such band.

To their credit, La Dispute is the perfect example of a band improving with each subsequent release. Their early releases and first LP, Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Altair and Vega, hinted at a band striving for grand ideas and dramatic presentation. Their lyrics have always contained poetic prose and a flair for connecting interpersonal struggles with grander themes. Frontman Jordan Dreyer also had the benefit of having musicians that were talented and knew how to write catchy melodies and experimental rhythms that gave their hardcore sound a distinctive character. Yet despite this, the band simply wasn’t in unison. Dreyer’s labored wails and lyricism didn’t mesh with the progressive leanings of his guitarists and his bark was unrefined and forced on many of their early releases.

Rooms of the House, the group’s third full length LP, is a culmination of all the growing pains, a trimming of the excesses and a more focused conceptual album overall. Detailing the intertwined lives of a couple whose relationship is falling apart, Rooms of the House serves to date as La Dispute’s shortest and most stripped down musical offering. This isn’t to say that it has been dumbed down, there’s still a tremendous amount of musical prowess on display here and true moshable servings of post-hardcore goodness. Instead, what we have here is La Dispute coming into musical adulthood. Dreyer’s vocals have improved drastically from their previous album Wildlife (which had already shown marked improvement from Dreyer) with convincing hardcore shouts that finally carry some impact and spoken word sections that serve as necessary bridges as opposed to pretentious meandering. Though there’s less of the immediately attention grabbing guitar leads that were found on songs like “Said the King to the River” or “Bury Your Flame,” Chad Sterenberg and Kevin Whittemore’s guitar work on this album takes a page from hardcore brethren Defeater, particularly on album opener “Hudsonville, MI 1965” and “For Mayor in Splitsville” with its emphasis on minor chord progressions and accompaniment to Dreyer’s rising vocal tension.

Perhaps Rooms’ greatest improvement of La Dispute’s sound are its lyrics, which shows immense growth in Dreyer’s ability to write compelling stories through imagery and tangential connections without sacrificing clarity. Case in point:

We took opposite steps
Tried to even the stress
Picked a safe direction but
You never know the way the ice thins

Half asleep in dreams where
Ceilings start collapsing
Free fall through the roof beams
Get startled back awake

From “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice,” the double entendre in having the couple tread on thin ice, literally and figuratively, ties the setting into the concept of the story itself. The opposite steps taken indicate a growing separation as they try to even the stress between each other and the ice. The collapse of the ice parallels the dream induced collapse of the roof, the couple’s world is crashing around them in multiple senses. Startled back awake from the emotional and physical cold, the breadth of analysis that just a single lyrical verse has invites comparisons to Touche Amore’s recent album Is Survived By…

On a musical front, though Rooms is a shorter record than previous La Dispute outings, the variety of songwriting on display is still very much La Dispute-sounding. The two part “Woman (In Mirror)” and “Woman (Reading)” function as brief snapshots into the couple’s lives when the love between them was still evident. Musically, they serve as a needed respite from the tragedy and misery that persists throughout Rooms’ other songs. “Stay Happy There” digs into the band’s punk oriented sound, particularly in the last 30 seconds as the song ends in a purposive crescendo. “35,” which tells the story of the tragic I-35W Mississippi River Bridge through the eyes of the husband as he watches on a TV set, begins with a spoken word passage and a lilting chord progression before erupting into emotive hardcore around the 1:00 mark as Dreyer screams, “Where I sat I saw brake lights flash/And I pictured them: all the people, their faces in free fall, the water beneath/I pushed my palms against the table hard to see if it hurt” then slowing down to another spoken word section as the drums pound a simple beat. Above all else, these tone shifts indicate growth on the part of La Dispute’s cohesion as a band. The transitions never feel awkward and have a natural flow to them that simultaneously complements the narrative characteristic of the album.

Though La Dispute is far from a young band (relatively speaking) the strides they have taken in songwriting indicate a musical collective that has finally settled into their groove. Rooms of the House is the realization of the group’s potential that they bravely, though amateurishly, strived for on At the Bottom of the River and earlier EPs. In an ironic reversal of progress, Rooms of the House marks the downfall of a romantic bond while coincidentally exemplifying the forward moving unity of La Dispute’s artistic ideals.

Written by Ian Wendrow