A Mixtape and a Cigarette: The Ballad of Comet Gain

There's a word Comet Gain uses in its lyrics more than any other band: mixtape.

Now you may think, Mixtape? That's kind of a silly thing to sing about.

And you might be right. But it's not silly for Comet Gain to sing about. Because in the land of Comet Gain -- and yes, the U.K. indie-pop icons exist in their own realm -- there is no currency more valuable than the mixtape.

Nobody has any money because they have no job, or a lousy job, or they spent whatever little they had on some rare 45 or beer. Nobody can communicate with any sort of normal, social competence. Feelings are best expressed through the songs on those mixtapes.

Listening to Comet Gain -- which plays in D.C. for the first time in ages at the Black Cat tonight -- is sort of like going back in time to a pre-Internet world. Before blogs and Netflix, when the only way to find the most obscure songs were to trade cassettes with friends or happen upon an old 45 at a record store -- when you couldn't get Godard's entire filmography delivered by the mailman, but had to stake out that single, static-y copy at the cool video store and watch it with a bunch of people at someone's apartment.

Musically, Comet Gain offers plenty to like. The band started out as a sort of mod-revival band before hitting its stride as a do-everything-indie-pop act that excels at jangly strummers, dance-floor rave ups and wistful ballads. But it's the lyrics that really define Comet Gain. As good as the actual songs are -- and tracks such as "The Kids at the Club" and "The Fists in the Pocket" are perfect pop tunes -- it's the words that make Comet Gain such a cult favorite. More so than almost any band, Comet Gain appeals to a very, very specific segment of the population.

(More after the jump.)

Songs are littered with references to mixtapes, cigarettes, French New Wave movies, obscure bands and characters whose lives are perpetually on the verge of falling into complete chaos.

Let's run down that list. Mixtapes? Yes. Cigarettes? Yup. (Unless Grandma is reading, in which case, it's a joke, haha!) French New Wave movies? Oui! Obscure bands? Goes without saying. Life staying together barely by a thead? Check. (Again, just joking Grandma. It's Internet humor.)

Most people won't care about songs referencing Dan Treacy or 45-year-old movies, but that's the whole point. Comet Gain isn't for most people. It's for people who live in basements [ed: or subsidized suburban apartments] and work at bookstores [ed: or Washingtonpost.com] and know more Godard movies than just "Breathless." The normal world has plenty of bands; Comet Gain is more than happy to be strictly for the diehards.

Perhaps no song better encapsulates the Comet Gain worldview than "The Ballad of a Mixtape," (listen above) the closing track on 2005's "City Fallen Leaves." It beings with someone leaving a message on an answering machine -- not a cell phone, but an actual answering machine. Remember, we're still kind of living in the past. Early on singer David Feck reels off a bunch of bands -- "The Go-Betweens and Supremes and the Chills and the Dills" -- not because he's trying to score cool points, simply because he's singing about what he cares most about. (Also, they rhyme!)

"Unseen history of these bands like a building built on fertile land/But I own their fanzines and the 45s and I promise not to let them die." Comet Gain carries on the tradition of the obscure band that "means the most to you, it means so much to me." It's not about reaching with the masses. It's about really connecting with a small handful of people. Hence: "We found the sound in the undergound/We felt so proud to be underground."

But there's one line that keeps coming up throughout the song, which is almost a celebration of everything that's most important to the band: "Something is missing." And you almost don't need to hear Feck say it to know that's the case. He always sings with determination, but also resignation.

"Something is missing."

But maybe that's not the worst thing in the world. Something is missing, but if nothing was missing, then what would be the point? Then what could get better? So even if something is missing, at least there are still those mixtapes and 45s. And Comet Gain songs.

By David Malitz |  April 8, 2009; 2:03 PM ET Old Favorite Thing , Screeds
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