Wounds and Resolutions: Curious Quail – ‘Twelve Months’

- Posted April 16th, 2019 by

Curious Quail’s ‘Twelve Months’ opens with a simple, quiet guitar chord, E major. A single pulse plays, E, the tonic, a perfect resolution in isolation.

The gameboy falters, falling down until it reaches a B. Perfect fifth. The next best thing.

For the first minute, each phrase ends in one of these two notes.

This song is titled ‘Resolutions’.


“a collection of twelve songs about life, love, loss, beauty, and so much more told through a canvas of hasty melodic decisions and instrumentation that you don’t often get together”
(photo and quote by Curious Quail)

I. On Beginnings

Bleary headed and clouded eyes as you open up a day planner for the first time
– Mike Shirley-Donnelly, ‘Resolutions’

The guitar ticks back and forth; you can hear its every movement. Mike Shirley-Donnelly sings the first vocal lines we hear, a small moment. Accompanied by only the reverberation around him, the vulnerability feels important. Small moments feel big.

April begins, I know when this article’s due. Bleary headed, clouded eyes, I tell myself I swear I’ll write it early this time. The first step feels like the largest.

Productivity screeching to a halt on that project you’ve been dedicating your time to
You’re already blocked

Percussion enters with a second verse, propelling time forwards. The Game Boy is restless. Mike sings a little louder.

The deadline approaches. I’m biting my nails again. The nail clippers are an arm’s length away on my desk. Another resolution broken.

But three pages deep in a letter to your uncle explaining why calling an entire class of people
‘lazy’ is a form of casual racism

The phrase doesn’t end where it feels like it should. No rhyme either. Each song on ‘Twelve Months’ was created given a random list of requirements. This one? “That feeling you get when you’re super on it at the beginning of something and it goes south”.

A New Year’s Resolution of mine was to get articles done early. I haven’t. Luckily, no letters to my uncle yet – then again, my family’s reading this, and may not take kindly to it. Makes the article hard to write, to be honest.

You’ll make a new one
Next year

This album was made over the course of a year, with the decision to write a song each month under specific restrictions. There’s an ironic and beautiful honesty in beginning with a song about failure, and a yearly tradition of these broken promises in spite of this. ‘Twelve Months’ is more than a success. It’s a commitment, and a challenge.

It’s the day of my deadline. My brain doesn’t like me today. The world is weighing me down. I toss my notes aside. I give up.

I begin writing anyway.

II. On Revolution

Civil innuendo
Gets thrown out the window with glee
The hardest part was knowing this
Hate comes naturally
– Curious Quail, ‘Cosmic Wound’

‘Cosmic Wound’ is a much different song than the opener. The verses are angry, marked by an external struggle. The percussion is tense and complicated, much like everything else in its fuller and heavier instrumentation. Curious Quail is an interesting band – while featuring emotive Game Boy lines, soft-spoken vocals, and a folk-like acoustic guitar and violin, they often switch to harsher guitar work, or kinetic basslines, and drums that decisively match the energy. ‘Cosmic Wound’ was written with the requirement it be ‘devastatingly sad’. The scale of this is captured by the instrumentation, but even moreso, collaboration communicates a shared experience, a sadness that isn’t felt alone.

You see their face
They’re quickly learning their mistakes are alive
They’ve created this wound

With baited breath
They’re justifying countless death for the lie
That created this wound

Curious Quail’s motivations are no secret. The titular assholes of ‘You Need Better Friends’ (track 6) are misogynists, xenophobes and abusers. The song speaks out against transphobia, gaslighting, and people that make you feel unsafe. In the video for ‘Cosmic Wound’, Mike’s shirt reads ‘Black Lives Matter’, as closed captions in the ‘out of control gameboy solo’ promote voting for ‘intersectional feminist candidates in every election’. This may not be the only take on this song, but it’s a very important one. Expressing what we stand for and supporting marginalized groups not only matters, it also makes our scene better.

But hold on
We’ll get back to rage in a moment
It’s ok to feel fucken broken
That’s no reflection on you

The energetic solo is followed by a refrain. Musical shifts in intensity aren’t merely an accompaniment. They reveal a truth. Even with a righteous anger, we’re still hurting. It’s a revolutionary concept, that it is okay, to not feel okay. That we are more than what this world makes of us. It’s revolutionary to put it so bluntly, and sing it together. There’s nothing wrong with us for the wrong that we feel.

We may not feel very hopeful
But we’ll burn these fuckers down wholesale 
Before they get started on you

Curious Quail’s sound is only part of the balancing act, as it portrays pain and solidarity. Much like ‘You Need Better Friends’, this isn’t really a song about assholes, or things that are wrong with the world. It’s a song about the people healing. It’s written for you.

III. This World You Don’t Believe In

She said that there were others
Always changing their cover
And all they want to do is live in peace
– Curious Quail, ‘One Thousand Lies’

If ‘Cosmic Wound’ is healing, ‘One Thousand Lies’ is the shock that comes first. The description reads, ‘Your aunt has secretly been an Alien this whole time.’ With lyrics like these, however, alienation as a metaphor displays humanity. Even if taken absolutely literally, the tale still taps into familiar and deeply authentic emotions. This is a song about pain and loss. Melodies are always pulling, straining for something lost in the waters.

She relented and went further
Explained that he was there to hurt her…

The instrumentation varies, bringing out harmonies and space. Sometimes it hits all at once. Those who want to hurt others do real damage to the people we care about.

But then a sound in the doorway
And she disappeared completely

A Wurlitzer seems to hide in the background. The verse goes on. Soon it’s over. An upbeat musical interlude feels alien and inappropriate, but this is all a bit wrong, isn’t it?

We’d agonize
Over one thousand lies 
That should’ve been drowned at sea
Before we were ever there

We grieve.

No one should have to live like this
Hiding just to exist

Curious Quail talks a lot about lies and ‘should have’s, from ‘they had to know that we’d die’ to glances at fuzzy photographs. This isn’t always an easy listen, and I applaud that. There’s something special in leaving some agony untouched, letting it be heard.

Hard to believe that you have grown so detached
This smell of hope has turned to ash
You think it’s easy to exist like this 
Out in the world that you have crashed
– Curious Quail, ‘Abandon Ship’

Tracks 2 and 3 both concern themselves with being, not in an eerie, existential sense, but a more human, tangible one. Whether melodies are fast and bright, or drawn out and aching, there’s always a feeling of difficulty, that merely existing pushes against something. I love how transparent these two lines are. Even with distinctly different subjects, they speak simply and resonate strongly. It signifies the album’s politics, empathy, state of being, mental health, internal and external struggles; not as dots to be connected, but as forces always acting on each other.

Stop
I swear we’ve already seen that truck
Can I just say this rest stop fuckin’ sucks
But we will be safe

Rain
Sheets of water pourin’ through these holes
We shoulda fixed ’em weeks ago, I know
Hindsight must be laughin’ I suppose
– Curious Quail, ‘This Rest Stop Sucks’

After large-scale stories and cosmic conflict, ‘This Rest Stop Sucks’ is a return to intimacy. The lyrics are poetry. Brought out by a collage of color and song, imagery paints a memory in your head. Again it recalls familiar emotions. There’s a powerful eloquence in calling something a ‘rest stop’, and what that represents. Much like ‘One Thousand Lies’, the lyrics draw from human experience in a way that lets us bring our own context. The rain pouring down is more than a visual, it is a sensation – and one that symbolizes a commonality.

But we’re not alone
No we’re not alone

Surprisingly, ‘we’re not alone’ does not appear in the track where your aunt is secretly an alien. It does, however, spring from a forceful refusal to give up. Much like ‘Cosmic Wound’, the band is a full sextet. Every one of them join in to sing the chorus. Their voices are in unison. This time, however, we also hear the result of that unity. The break between verses has such a determined, yet complex spirit. Every instrument plays its own song, only somewhat joyful, but undeniably free.

Someone compliments your work
It makes you hesitate
You know somehow that shoe will drop
And kill you while you wait
– Curious Quail, ‘Impostor Syndrome’

Composition again complements the lyrics in ‘Impostor Syndrome’. A song about doubting your ability is also this album’s most rhythmically complex, alternating time signatures between sections. One step further, each meter matches the style and voice in the writing. A disjointed 5 makes up the negative self-deprecating verses, becoming a steadier 6 when the chorus encourages you to ‘find your own worth’. This not only strengthens the piece, it reinforces a message especially compelling as creators and musicians and artists understanding one another.

Though we may be fallin’ deeper still
I’ll hold on if you promise that you will
– Curious Quail, ‘This Rest Stop Sucks’

There’s only you and you’re good enough
You’ll be the best you, you’re good enough 
Wait and see
– Curious Quail, ‘Impostor Syndrome’

I believe in you.

IV. On Apprehension

Stretchers and
Nurses and 
You just sit there waitin 
Coin in and 
Food out and 
Pattern goes on repeatin’ 
– Curious Quail, ‘Fluorescent Lights’

‘Fluorescent Lights’ enters with an anxious drum. This restless beating is joined by a droning guitar, a tool the band often uses to raise tension, a signal you’re awaiting something. This urgency is unanswered. Vocals and violin arrive together, singing the same song, because what else is there to say? The melody leads up and up, inquiring – no – pleading. Rhyming ‘and’ with ‘and’. That god damned guitar is still playing the same note. It’s an F, the minor third – ungratifying, but it isn’t leading anywhere either. There isn’t even a bass note to ground it; the whole thing just floats with an uneasy feeling. Phrases are lightheaded, dragging breaths. I’m reminded of the last time I was in a hospital.

The sun and moon have come and gone
But on the bright side 
The cafeteria opens soon

Fluorescent lights. Sun and moon. Even looking on the bright side. Narrative details fill your head, except the imagery is blinding. I can hear the urgent care room in here.

Pace in a circle waitin’
And curse these fluorescent lights

The chorus fills a more hectic, claustrophobic space. The guitar is jumpy, all-encompassing, and full of fuzz, much like your head in a storm like this. The second time around, it leads into an aggressive solo: quick and inconclusive. We drown in sound.

“No News Is Good News” they say
you’ll break that door with your eyes

You’ll break that door with your eyes. It speaks to a certain brilliance in how Curious Quail articulates emotion, with a vivid and fully realized interaction between outside situations and the condition of your mind. Efficacious as a last line, it encapsulates this unresolved desperation.

We need to take action.

Dark harmonies: our establishing shot. The piano is like a funeral, the synthesized strings like a ghost – almost present, but not quite opaque. The scene is full of fog.

In the cover of the night
I’ll take the guards on the left
and you’ll take right
– Curious Quail, ‘The Plan’

A brighter progression invites the camera closer. Pulses are high, soft, and ringing. Have to be light and quick on your feet. The mission starts, vocals giving the all clear, so a catchy and precise guitar jumps in. Dorian mode, a driving force.

We’ll be keepin’ out of sight
Silhouettes dancin’ past 
The lantern light 
Halls of decadence with emptiness below
[…]
Standing toe to toe with opulence and wealth
Don’t they know that people die
Every day based on things that they
decide

The tale goes on. Drums are moving faster, dancing in the moonlight. Game Boy countermelodies and harmonies spar with passion. The whole song just swells. This is the Event after all, the story’s final confrontation. It’s the natural destination of this album’s road map: full of imagery, and moments, and all kinds of musical voices. The politics are emblazoned and speak for themselves, yet the song’s sound fuels every movement, coloring it not with adventure but with complicated, personal emotion.

They say wrongs can’t make a right
I guess that all depends on your definition
But the people makin rules like that are never at risk
They sure thought we wouldn’t fight
Well…surprise!

The chorus comes again, development punchier, harmonies more triumphant. The air is satisfying. They sure thought we wouldn’t fight. A suspended chord flies in their face. Well… the fourth falls down to an F♯. It’s a Picardy third – a nice choice for ‘surprise!’ – making a confident declaration. The harmonies, along with everything else, have finally resolved.

The song is ready to end.

But it doesn’t.

This moment may be proud, and liberating, but the fight isn’t over. The wounds are still there. We never had a perfect resolution.

V. Where Do We Go, From Here?

This world you don’t believe in
But I think it’s time we’re leavin’ 
And we don’t belong 
But where do we go 
From here?

On its own, you would think there’s a contradiction between how the story builds and how this song closes. Lyrically and musically, it subverts your expectations. Landing somewhere lost and somber, the final words are a question. When you look at how we got here, though, it’s the only ending that makes sense. Above all else, Curious Quail sings with empathy. Above all else, art is human. This album isn’t for ‘them’. It’s for ‘us’. Our strength doesn’t come from finality. It comes from living, sharing our joys and pain, standing together and healing.

For all its twists and turns, ‘The Plan’ isn’t so much a narrative as it is an idea. It conveys such a real emotion, one I’ve felt a lot before, and hearing it in such a real way makes me feel less alone. I’ve said it before – music is connection.

Maybe this album answers its own question, with not only an immensely potent work of art, but a shining example of the world chipmusic has brought me into. ‘Twelve Months’ explores a unique sound, introducing new applications of restriction, writing with direction and power. More importantly, Curious Quail is a deeply collaborative effort, supporting the right people with songs full of emotion, meaning, empathy, and recognition.

It’s time to finish what we all started
With bruises, bleeding limbs, broken hearted
But all
Together now
We got this far

Blink once or twice and it’s over
And sure you’re beaten down and feel older
But against
all odds and reason
Here we are
– Curious Quail, ‘The Albatross’

Where do we go from here?

Together.

Curious Quail:
curiousquail.com | Bandcamp | Youtube |
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