The Life Cycle of Life Without Buildings
Life Without Buildings lasted less than three years. They released one album, and their entire discography —LP plus assorted B-sides— totals but 13 songs. In their day, the Scottish quartet were ignored or maligned in their homeland, had robust followings —oddly— in Greece and Australia, and were virtual unknowns in America. When they broke up, no one really seemed to notice.
Life Without Buildings were formed in 1999 and broke up in 2002; meaning their lifespan coincided with the early boom in filesharing. But they don't feel like a band of the digital era, at all: they were barely photographed, gave few interviews, and predated the hype cycles of the blogosphere. They almost feel as much like myth as band; with the tangible proof of their existence the one note-perfect LP they left behind, a beautiful corpse eternally young.
The tale of Life Without Buildings doesn't really add much to the myth. A trio of dudes studying at the Glasgow School of Art decided to get together to make minimalist, half-electronic instrumental music in the vein of To Rococo Rot or Kreidler. Only, they discover, they're not that into hunching over synthesizers, and they're tired of watching shows where guys sit behind laptops. So they pick up guitar/bass/drums, then find themselves a singer: fellow art-student Sue Tompkins, who they rope in after seeing her perform spoken word.
Their music turns out to be almost the exact product of that marriage: Tompkins half-sung, half-spoken vocals sitting atop songs with a stark, muscular, bass-driven groove. But that doesn't really begin to describe the spirit of the sound, which shared the same kind of casually-experimental, tradition-razing urgency of post-punk; Tompkins' oddball, quirky sing-song ways a decades-on counter to vocal foremothers like The Raincoats' Gina Birch and Ana da Silva, X-Ray Spex' Poly Styrene, and, even, less credibly, Altered Images' Clare Grogan. Yet there's something classic-rock about them, too; the warm tones and trusted tropes of the Velvet Underground, Television, and Patti Smith all informing their sound.
D-duh-d-duh with a Bit of Freestyle
It's impossible to capture the manner of Tompkins' unique delivery in mere written words; to somehow transcribe her way of spilling out syllables. Tompkins was a non-musician, an art student who begged the band to quit once it became something more than a fun hobby; but she was also, in her own way, the perfect musician; someone whose love of language and playful approach to vocal expression had the most musical quality.
Tompkins doesn't so much deliver her lines as hiccough them; spit and stutter and pirouette through textual mosaics. She manages to sound both lost in reverie whilst mindful; sounding somewhat like a crazy person rambling whilst, still, delivering everything with precision. A comparison to scat vocalists is way off the mark, but there's something resonant about the idea, too; Tompkins' singing in unexpected rhythms, reducing language to mere sounds, babbling both inside the music and away from it at some internal rhythm.
Her poetry —and, it's poetry— is inscrutable as much as it is quotable; open for interpretation and not committed to any singular emotion. As band, Life Without Buildings are no simple emotional proposition; their music is upbeat but with a strong current of sadness pulling songs down. Tompkins' oddball presence and fondness for repetition (like: "If I/If I/If I/If I," machine-gunned in an opening vocal spray on LP highlight "The Leanover") can be both funny and profound; and, moreso, it lends itself to impersonation and quotation, to sweet mockery and respectful profundity.
Emotional Chick, Emotional Chick
Tompkins was mocked, in Life Without Buildings' day, by the British Music Press boys club. With implied misogyny, she was the annoying chick ruining a perfectly good rockband; the restlessness of her voice seen not as the band's greatest blessing, but its downfall. The reading was offensive at the time, but history has proven it particularly wrong. Life Without Buildings may've not lasted long, but their music has lingered on; Any Other City an album that, in its quirks of individuality, transcends trends; standing, years on, as one of the best albums of the '00s.
Despite its bracing individuality, there's no real thesis statement driving the LP. Unlike so many great albums, there's singular narrative existing either in the songs or the back-story. Yet Any Other City is, undeniably, a great album. A real, true album: a suite of songs united in tone and delivery; the sum total of a career in 44 minutes, the lifespan of a band in 10 transcendent tracks.
Record Label: Tugboat
Release Date: February, 2001