One summer Saturday when I was eight years old, I went with my parents and brothers to a watermelon feed at the farmstead owned by Bob and Betty Wheeler. I had no desire to feed on watermelon (because watermelon is gross), so it wasn’t long before I took my leave of the backyard and went exploring. First, the Wheelers’ monumental red barn. Then, a look at an old tractor, whose tires towered over my freckly head. And finally, the cornfield in back of the Wheeler property.
Despite my achingly rural upbringing, I’d never been in a cornfield. So I was 20 rows into the Wheelers’ field before I had the presence of mind to stop and get my bearings. I turned to look in the direction I assumed I had come from, only to discover that all I could see was a thicket of dark green leaves. Where was the Wheelers’ yard, my parents, the picnic tables where my fellow small-towners were assembled?
A wave of panic washed across my body as I realized: I didn’t know where I was.
These days, I feel a similar sense of disorientation whenever I try to imagine how I might go about finding new music. There are so many bands, and so many outlets, and so many ways for the bands to use those outlets. Should I trust Spotify? Soundcloud? Stereogum? Should I take Amazon’s word for it — should I buy the latest St. Vincent album just because I once bought a Cat Power album?
It’s enough to make me want to sit down and start crying, like I did in the Wheelers’ cornfield. But then, every once in a while, I come across a beacon of hope — something that reminds me that all isn’t lost. Something like A Lesson Unlearnt, the debut album by Until the Ribbon Breaks.
On A Lesson Unlearnt, lead singer Pete Lawrie-Winfield and his bandmates, Elliot Wall and James Gordon, deploy in equal measure pop, electronica, and loungey R&B, producing a sound hybrid that owes as much to George Michael and Cut/Copy as it does to Alt-J. The result is 11 songs of beautiful schizophrenia, as best represented on my favorite song from the album, “A Taste of Silver.”
After several listens to A Lesson Unlearnt, I was officially gobsmacked. I assumed I was not alone in this gobsmackery — I figured Until the Ribbon Breaks was already a household name amongst people who know more about cool music than I. So I accessed Twitter, expecting to see 50,000, 100,000, maybe 200,000 followers.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw that the band had only 5,500 people paying attention to its every utterance. After celebrating my newfound status as a trendsetter, I moved on to contemplating the band’s worldview. I wondered if Until the Ribbon Breaks felt anything like I did about the crowded landscape provided by popular music. Was it just as intimidating from their end? Was it daunting, the prospect of breaking through—of finding their way out of the cornfield?
“Definitely,” Pete Lawrie-Winfield said, slipping an artfully tattooed arm behind his neck as he rocked back on his chair — one of those white plastic numbers Target uses as a loss leader while trying to get you to pull the trigger on a new grill. “It’s something you can’t help but be aware of. But instantly, you’re doing that and not making music. I make myself feel better when I look at careers of artists I love. It’s never been an easy route. I think bands like LCD Soundsystem and the National — it was a couple of records, and building and building and building.”
Lawrie-Winfield is every bit the lead singer of an up-and-coming rock band. He’s got the smoky good looks, the funky hat, the stubble. One could thus be forgiven if his response, with its oblique references to the perils of selling out, sounds predictable or rote. But as we talked in the courtyard behind the band’s Los Angeles studio, with the Southern California sun only barely filtered through a pair of trees, I decided that Lawrie-Winfield meant what he was saying — that he and his bandmates are in it for the long haul.
Of course, that could have been their accents.
Until the Ribbon Breaks hail from the United Kingdom, which is important not only because I tend to take more seriously the things that are said by people from Great Britain, but also because it helped advance my enjoyment of the band. When I first listened to A Lesson Unlearnt, I was left with one gnawing concern: a lot of the genres I was hearing — genres that were being skillfully mashed together — were genres usually best (and originally) done by black people. For reasons I can’t fully articulate, but which assuredly have to do with white guilt, I knew I was going to feel weird if it turned out that Until the Ribbon Breaks was a bunch of suburbanites from Minneapolis.
When I put this to the band, Wall and Gordon looked to Lawrie-Winfield in order that he might, in prototypical lead singer form, synthesize their feelings on the matter.
“I think that’s probably been happening since the Rolling Stones played blues,” he said. “Or Mumford and Sons do bluegrass. It’s interesting because in the UK — and I’m sure it happened with the Stones way back, and it definitely happens with Mumford and Sons — people kind of go, ‘really?’ But when they came to America and did it, they didn’t experience the backlash. So maybe you can sell it not where you’re from.”
Until the Ribbon Breaks haven’t sold themselves entirely to the American public; they admitted that at the beginning of their first set at the recent Coachella music festival, only a few dozen people were in attendance. But all indications are that they’re on the rise. By the end of that show, hundreds of people, they told me, were singing along. And the band has caught the attention of people who matter. For instance, the rap duo that many consider to be at the top of that game: Run the Jewels, who appear on A Lesson Unlearnt’s “Revolution Indifference.”
References to LCD Soundsystem and the National? A guest appearance by Run the Jewels? It is fashionable (and obnoxious) to say that bands “defy classification.” But if there was ever a band that did defy classification, it’s Until the Ribbon Breaks. Which, for the band, is a double-edged sword.
James Gordon, who came aboard only after Lawrie-Winfield had written the album, said, “I remember listening to ‘Pressure’ — what was it, three years ago? — and I was like, ‘I don’t get this.’ And then I listened to it more and more and I was like, ‘this is weird, and good.’ Not many people were doing that electronic-influenced kind of thing.”
Lawrie-Winfield picked up the thread: “That’s one of the things about this album taking so long to come out. I really do feel like songs like ‘Pressure’ — that they were more experimental than by the time they come out.”
His words articulated something I’ve felt in getting to know — and love — A Lesson Unlearnt. It is an album that might have been too complex if it had come out three years ago, when Lawrie-Winfield finished composing it. Now, though, it feels just about perfect: there’s the right amount of genre-bending to leave me feeling stimulated, but not overwhelmed. Like all the classic albums I love — Siamese Dream, Ill Communication, Turn On the Bright Lights — I feel like I’m being pushed, but pushed just the right amount.
A Lesson Unlearnt also makes feel like I did in the Wheelers’ cornfield. I mean, after I stopped crying and got my wits about me. Back then, my salvation came in simplicity: I looked up. And there, above the tassles at the tops of the cornstalks above me, I saw the eaves of the red barn.
I’d found my beacon. I knew where I was. I had hope.
A Lesson Unlearnt will give you hope, too — that, in the world we live in, with all its ways to make music, ways to find music, ways to consume music, you have a touchstone: your own red barn above the cornfield.
Your own way back to the party.