At close to one year of being in LA, I went to see Land of Talk live for the first time in five years. As I’ve written about before, Land of Talk are the band that I’ve grown up through adulthood with. Entering my life after Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus in 2006, LOT have been a massive presence in my life, their music—and especially their live shows—opening my body and heart up to the simultaneous emotionality and viscerality of music. Catching them last during their Life After Youth (an album that has since become my favorite) tour in 2017 in New York City, the LA show would be the 15th time I had seen the band in 15 years. As I’ve done at many a LOT show, I arrive early and grab a spot right in front of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter’s Lizzie Powell’s mic setup, ready to dance the night away. Before the music even begins, I chat with the person standing next to me, bonding over our shared love for the band and for going to shows in LA. In a month of being in and out of town and amidst going through all of the end of the school year things as a tenure track faculty member for the first time (graduation, banquet, all the little things that come up along the way), the concert is a rare moment of peace, a time when both my body and my mind feel at ease. Listening attentively during the opener’s set, I can hear Lizzie yelling words of support from the side of the stage—and, midway, see them come out to the mic to tell people who were talking during the set that they should just go ahead and leave the venue. In between sets, I check my DMs, finding a message from Lizzie that ends with “Thanks for being here.” With that quick moment of connection, I feel even more ready to open myself (back) up to this band who have always gotten deep inside of me.
In many ways, the show was a double header for Land of Talk’s two most recent albums, the quiet power of 2020’s Indistinct Conversations and the added layers of 2021’s Calming Night Partner. In 2020, I was set to fly to NYC (again) to see Land of Talk, a few weeks after fellow Canadian pop-rock powerhouses Austra and U.S. Girls would also be in town. Of course, none of those shows actually happened, along with the research trip that I was supposed to take to Berlin in between them. Fittingly, the band begin their set at the Lodge Room that night with “Diaphanous” and then “Moment Feed,” singles from Indistinct Conversations and Calming Night Partner, respectively. Then, in an emotionally attuned move, the band next go into “Some Are Lakes,” a single from the 2008 album of the same name that opens up the first sing-a-long moment of the night. “We’ve seen how sick wind blows/ But I’ve got your bovine eyes/ I’ll love you like I love you/ Then I’ll die.” When these lines first entered my orbit, I was six months into my first relationship with my first girlfriend, who was also my first lover. I believed them with my whole body for most of the next three years, thinking that this one person could be everything for me for the rest of my life. Since then, I’ve learned that not everything lasts that long—and, regardless of the amount of time, someone can still be deeply meaningful to you, depending on your connection with them. At the show that night, I sing along with my entire body to words that I’ve sometimes struggled to keep believing in over the course of the past 11 years since that first relationship ended, as I’ve never made it that long in partnership with someone since my early 20s. But Land of Talk are a band who help you keep believing in the power of romantic love (and all love, really), even when it feels hopeless.
The next few songs (“Compelled,” “Calming Night Partner,” and “Macabre”) continue in this pace and affective space, building up to the sonic explosion of a midway point that is “Yuppy Flu.” Another song from 2008’s Some Are Lakes, few opening drum fills from the past 15 years send me into as much of an excited frenzy as this song. The opener on Some Are Lakes, the song opens with a minute-long instrumental, with the bassline soon joining in before Powell enters with a series of quick, heavy-hitting guitar riffs. “Are you seeing your own death?/ And selling it to me?/ Are you seeing your own death?/ And selling it to me?” The anti-capitalistic chorus hits as hard as the guitar riffs, with Powell’s vocals keeping intensity with the guitar, bass, and drums. (After the song ends, I yell “Classic!” at the stage.) The song sets up an organic transition to “Footnotes,” one of my favorite songs from Indistinct Conversations. Following that, the tempo stays faster for the (on album) Sharon Van Etten-assisted “This Time” and the most Fugazi-inspired of all of Land of Talk’s songs, “The Hate I Won’t Commit.” Closing out with another sludgy, minute-long instrumental, I/the rest of the audience hit the high of our moment of release, knowing this is it (for the main set) and wanting to leave nothing behind. As has always been the case with me and my relationship with live music, I don’t need anything besides to just be there in that moment, to feel along (in every sense) with the music. As I’m standing there and moving along with everything around me, I realize that this is the most that I’ve felt like a dancing body since before the pandemic. Even after a year of attending many concerts in LA, this is the moment during which music feels real again, feels like the thing that can both push you beyond yourself and into polymorphous configurations with other people. As I’m dancing, I feel affirmed that this is why I live in the heart of LA (and not Long Beach or Fullerton or somewhere else), so I can walk out the door—or get on my bike or in my car—and get to one of these shows on a moment’s notice. In my individual and, sometimes, shared concert-going life, this is what it means to feel alive, to feel like a full person again.
For the encore, we get another two older songs: “Magnetic Hill” (the only song from Applause Cheer Boo Hiss for the night) and “It’s Okay,” the emotional heavy-hitter from Some Are Lakes. As with “Yuppy Flu,” I take out my phone to record a clip of “It’s Okay,” holding my hand steady as I keep my eyes on the band in real time. “Something in your voice/ Sparks a little hope/ I’ll wait up for that noise/ Your voice becomes my home.” This time, the group sing-a-long is done power ballad style, with myself and everyone else gesticulating wildly as we sing along. When I last saw Land of Talk in Brooklyn six years ago, I brought along my girlfriend from ten years ago, at the tail end of long distance sleeping with/sort of seeing one another again. I always think about how she left two songs into the set that night (and before “It’s Okay”), gently kissing me goodbye and ending that period of our knowing one another by quietly walking out. (Sitting across from her again two months ago in Philly, I finally understood why she left the way she did.) In the meantime, I’ve spent the past six/ten years wondering when I might start to feel like that about someone again, getting the “sparks” that the song sounds to but never quite back to the “home.” As I close out the deeply emotional and spiritual experience of being at the Land of Talk show in LA that night, I realize that I am exactly where I need to be for that, even if it hasn’t happened yet. At the show’s close, Land of Talk remind me of how far I’ve come to get here and, simultaneously, (re)ground me in the place that I am now, both emotionally and geographically. In their music, I carry all of the places—and people—I’ve been within me, feeling whole in this multi-faceted-ness.
After the show, I wait around for Lizzie, hoping for a quick hello before I (correctly) assume that the band has to rush back to Canada. Hanging around the merch table with a record smuggled across the border for me, I soon hear Lizzie’s voice in the next room and head over. After they finish talking with someone, I run up and we exchange the first of many big hugs. “I counted and this is the 15th time I am seeing y’all in the past 15 years,” I begin. “I’m going to be 35 next month. When I met you, I was only 19.” “You’re catching up!” Lizzie jokes, in their endearing sense of humor that’s always made me feel instantly connected to them. As someone who doesn’t have an older sibling, I’ve always held especially dear the friends a few years older than me (like Lizzie) who have acted as a guiding light. Standing together and chatting irl for the first time in (too many) years, we giddily retell the story of Lizzie sneaking me into a show at Swarthmore in 2007 by saying I was their cousin to their Saddle Creek manager and LA artist friend standing with us. At home for the summer for the only time during college, I would go to see Land of Talk as many times as they played NY/NJ during summer 2007 (minus the time I went to see Holly Miranda, one of our shared music loves, play solo for the first time)—and Lizzie would be a light for just being myself as I began to step into my queerness. And then again, in the years leading up to moving to LA (and starting to use she/they pronouns), Lizzie would again be a light, their nonbinaryness a beacon for my genderqueerness. I say as much of this as I can in the time we have together at the club, and then write the rest of it in a DM the next day. As they are about to rush off to customs, I ask if we can at last take a picture, after 15 years and 15 shows of somehow never doing so before. In the one where we’re both hugging one another, I look—and feel—free to just be myself.
As an album, Calming Night Partner is the healing that comes after Indistinct Conversations. Leading with single “Weight of That Weekend,” Indistinct Conversations explored the blurry spaces where consent can go missing, where people’s emotional lines can be crossed. When I wrote about the album two years ago, I was just beginning to process the months of shaming, emotional manipulation, and gaslighting that led to a recent relationship’s explosive, coercive ending. Hearing “Weight of That Weekend” the morning after sleeping with that person for the first time, the song became an eerie foreshadowing of what the relationship turned out to be. As I wrote in that post, “Where ‘Speak to Me Bones’ is the fuck off, ‘Weight of That Weekend’ is the examination of the emotional and psychic costs of when we feel that our lines have been crossed.” Even two years later, it is still hard to listen to the song (and I’m actually quite relieved that LOT didn’t perform it at the show), a visceral reminder of how emotional manipulation can snowball into other kinds of violence. Driving down St. Charles with a former student who’s now become a trusted friend in New Orleans two Sundays ago, I saw my toxic ex standing on the street with the lover that she used to compare me to, huddled under an umbrella. She didn’t see me, and I was able to recognize her presence but then also quickly let it go. Shielded in the car of my Cancer rising friend, I didn’t feel powerless, as I have for so much of the past two years. Instead, with the armor of recent meaningful encounters, I felt powerful as a sexual body and a romantic person again. But such is staring down the ghosts of our pasts and recognizing that we’re in a different place now. When I got back to LA, I realized that I’ve spent the past year going back and staring down ghosts in every place I lived before LA: Austin (May 2021), Jersey City + Brooklyn (Dec 2021), Philly (Apr 2022), New Orleans (May 2022). I’ve lived in a lot of places and have had full lives in all of them, meaning I now have my share of ghosts in each city. As you learn from living in New Orleans, the ghosts will always be there with you. What’s in your power is how you choose to engage—and which stories you choose to tell of them after.
A short (but also long) four songs, Calming Night Partner is an EP that acknowledges the ghosts without getting caught up in them, that pushes itself to be present in the moment and what’s directly in front of them. Opener “Leave Life Alone” begins with some fluttering synths (or guitar effects?), setting down a dreamy soundscape before Powell’s guitar comes roaring in. What is real and what is imagined here? What is past and what is present? What is ours and what is others’? Like all of Land of Talk’s songs, “Leave Life Alone” exists in this porous space, where grief and trauma linger but we also remember how absolutely amazing it is to be alive, right now, at this very moment. “I will leave life, I will leave life, I will leave life alone,” Powell repeats four times through, varying the lines slightly each time. As those of us who have been in therapy or taken other approaches to dealing with grief and/or trauma, sometimes it is the walking through it over and over again that leads you to a point of incorporation, to a point of calm acceptance of the things that have happened (to us) in the past and that we cannot at this point change. I don’t know if this is what Powell meant by these lines, but when I listen to them from my current place of healing, that’s where I emotionally go. And so, when they next get to the lines of “Living like I’m dreaming/ Living like I’m seeing it all,” I grab onto this as the moment of hope in the song, a reaching out towards the light that’s shining through. (Fittingly, Land of Talk have a song entitled “Now You Want to Live in the Light” near the end of Indistinct Conversations.) This song, like the EP, epitomizes calm.
Coming second on the EP (and second in the LA set), “Moment Feed” picks up the pace, picking up the pieces from “Weight of That Weekend.” After a quick guitar riff, the song begins in a similar vein to “Yuppy Flu,” with a catchy bassline and the drums keeping time—and holding space for Powell’s guitar to slowly build back into the song. Known for long instrumentals at the beginning, end, and sometimes middle of songs, this is one of Land of Talk’s best, keeping with the general peace of the album while also jumping out ahead of it. At 45 seconds in, Powell comes in to sing, “Don’t you want to hear my body talk?/ Don’t you wanna feel that noise?/ Safety was a home between us/ That I feel that choice/ I was walking on sunshine…” Hearing this song live at the Lodge Room, I slip into the memory of some recent sexual encounters, of fucking and being fucked, of starting to feel like a sexual body again, of starting to feel like a whole person again. But, as with the sounds of the song, the sexual is also highly emotional, something that I always come back into, even if I try to pretend that I can detach the two from one another. To feel safe in emotionality with someone who’s been a lover is something I have not felt in a long time–and that I am still seeking. On “Moment Feed,” it’s unclear what the relationship between the two people is or will be, only that they’re there—and that they are being in the moment with one another.
If “Moment Feed” is the present reality, then “Calming Night Partner” is the hoped for outcome, with a person who still might be unknown. With guitar, bass, synths, and drums, the song embodies calm even as the narrator wonders aloud about the state of things with someone. “I just wanna hold you…/ I wanna wake with silver/ I wanna wake with gold/ Another night of letting go/ With nothing left to hold.” As I listen to “Calming Night Partner,” I remember that sometimes holding someone can be even more powerful than having sex with them, yet another thing that I’ve come back into sensorial overload over lately. Sitting in a car after another eight hours together, I’m tenderly honest that what I really want is to date one person for the long haul, even as I already know I’m the one who’s more there. Continuing onward in my vulnerability, I add on that “poly” doesn’t quite feel like the right word for me, even after starting to loosely embrace it after continuing to find myself in poly situations. (Really, none of these identity words have ever felt quite right for me, minus “queer,” which has been my anchor since I started using it.) As Land of Talk has, to me, long been a musical project more about how words feel and less about what they literally mean, I find myself searching for the words that better emotionally convey the kind of growing together but also separately that I want out of a romantic partnership, words that can continue to grow with me as I (we all) do. In the calm of the song, I remember that I don’t have to give up on this dream, even as it’s taking so long to fulfill.
Closing out with “Something Will Be Said,” Land of Talk exalt in the slow-burning album closer (or near closer), a song type they perfected early on from “Street Wheels” to “Got a Call” to “A Series of Small Flames.” More than the words or the narrative, what stays with you about “Something Will Be Said” is that it burns, that it stays with you even after your brief encounter has paused or ended. In a lot of ways, this is the story of my relationship with the band, particularly my interactions with Lizzie, which have come in waves often years apart from one another. In some other ways, this is what the past ten years of my romantic life has felt like, reaching out and holding onto people at all different kinds of temporal and geographic touchdown points as I moved around four different cities on the professor path. In this sense, I think that a loose polyness became a kind of survival mechanism for me during that time, a way to try to have some consistency (in connection, even if it was far away) as everywhere I lived during that decade-long period felt completely precarious and constantly stressful. As I’m starting to feel more grounded again, my desires in this part of my life are solidifying into something more singular and concrete. With one of Land of Talk’s longest wordless segments yet, “Something Will Be Said” closes with an over two-minute-long instrumental, underscoring how the words for what we’re wanting and what we’re feeling don’t always come to us right away. I feel very much in the instrumental of that song right now, feeling my way through experiencing so much so intensely on all levels for the first time in a long time. But that is what Land of Talk has always been for me, a space of feeling through sensations of all kinds.