written by Jessica Star Rockers
Imagine a traveling circus freak show where the freaks are engaged in a mutinous revolt. They’ve listened to The Clash, hijacked a carnival band’s instruments, and are about to take control. Can you hear the oompa oompa? If so, it’s probably Pick Up Sticks, the latest album from the Kill Rock Stars band They Shoot Horses Don’t They?.
They Shoot Horses’ previous album, Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, sounded more like the high school marching band rejects these twenty-somethings might actually be. As if the image of their old band director was still hovering in the back of their subconscious, tapping his baton to keep the beat.
Thankfully, on Pick Up Sticks, the band has purged itself of this apparition and done away with the metronome, kicking off those years of band class. There’s a much more punk esthetic here, more shambolic and raw. They’ve let go of the self-containment and are marching forward, beginning with the intro song “One Last Final Push”: “We go on marching forward; Through all the silent faces; Sing! This noise! This drum! Well, here we come!”
The band name comes from the 1935 Horace McCoy book (and the subsequent 1969 Sydney Pollack movie) depicting a depression-era dance marathon where the contestants are starving and hopeless, yet dance to exhaustion in the hopes of winning the cash prize. The band quotes the book blurb on their Myspace page: “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? present us with a dark and violent world where people are readily exploited for the pennies that they might bring in from a viewing audience. Marathon dances last for weeks, even months, draining their participants of self-respect and gradually turning them into the walking dead.”
The album itself often feels like a dance marathon that will never end. The songs are relentless in their energy, each registering at fever pitch. But while this makes for somewhat exhausting listening on their 10-song LP, it translates best when seen live. Their shows have been compared to the Sammy David Jr. “Rythym of Life” scene from the movie Sweet Charity, a kind of joy-filled musical cult indoctrination. (Beware of churches that meet in underground parking lots.)
But They Shoot Horses Don’t They? isn’t staying underground, they’re taking it to the streets, confident they’ll convert the whole neighborhood or die trying.