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An Affair to Remember 

Ten years, three countries, and one long relationship later, the Caseworker has arrived with a stunning debut

Wednesday, Sep 17 2003
It is dusk in the Mission District, another of these long summer days is coming to a close. The core members of the Caseworker, Conor Jonathan and Eimer Devlin, are sitting at a bar, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and whispering to each other. They're an hour early for our appointment, rather uncharacteristic for rock musicians. Perhaps it's because they want to get their stories straight before our interview, or maybe it's because they're both Irish, and it is, after all, happy hour.

A charming, literate fellow, Jonathan sports mussed hair and three-day facial scruff that make him seem all the wiser, his rough edges an allowance earned from fretting and contemplating, something the guitarist/vocalist seems to do a lot of. Bassist/ vocalist Devlin, on the other hand, is placid and reserved, with piquant features and dark, neatly pulled-back hair. The yin to Jonathan's yang, Devlin chooses her words carefully, especially when she's correcting her bandmate's remarks, which can be as straightforward at times as they are devilishly abstract at others.

Together, they've been making music for almost a decade, first as Half Film, now as the Caseworker. Their brand of tunes descends from the old shoegazer movement, bands like Slow Dive and Ride, Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star. It's simple music on the surface, verse-chorus-verse stuff, a swollen mix of fuzzy, reverberated guitars, languorous drumming, gentle bass lines, and brisk, slightly raspy vocals. But that's just the surface.

Once a few Pabsts have been consumed, the raw nerve seething beneath the duo's debut, These Weeks Should Be Remembered, is exposed. A couple for over 10 years, Jonathan and Devlin have spent the last decade living, creating, and migrating together -- they both moved to San Francisco from England in '95. They whiled away the final third of their relationship -- which included a sabbatical in Valencia, Spain -- siring These Weeks, which they completed almost a year ago and which is finally being released this month on Manifesto Records. It was only during the last stages of recording that their affair began to stutter, ultimately coming to an end around the time that lyrics were being written, vocals recorded. Thus, the album has a fascinating double edge to it: It is a document of both the flourishing and the demise of the couple's relationship, something that they're coming to terms with as they sit across from one another, not as paramours, but as friends. When, for example, Jonathan tries to sum up the record's ethos, he insists that "it's not an autobiography ..."

"... yeah, it's not about that," echoes Devlin immediately. "There may be elements of that that creep in, but it's not about that."

"But ... it definitely seeps in," adds Jonathan, rethinking things almost completely. "I don't think we can help it," he says, turning to address Devlin directly. "You just don't realize it because time has passed," he tells her, before explaining to me, "I was singing the lyrics [at a recent show], and I was like, 'This is fucking mad.' It's like you realize a year later what you're fucking singing about."

Bolstered by masterful production, Jonathan's emotionally expressive guitar work, Devlin's soothing bass lines, and the duo's hypnotic, intertwined vocals, the lyrics make for a haunting record, a living, breathing, jarringly well-captured snapshot of the best of times and the worst of times in the life of a very cute couple.

Jonathan and Devlin met in Dublin, in the early '90s, through mutual friends. A few years later, the pair moved to Newcastle, England, to attend university. From the beginning, they were drawn together by their mutual love of music, their desire to create it together. Newcastle, however, home to a number of DIY punk labels at the time, did not seem like the right place.

"[In] Newcastle there were some small labels," says Devlin, "but it was so far away from what we wanted. We were like, 'Holy shit, they're doing this, and we're way over here. No way!'"

And so the couple determined that America was where they'd play their hand, San Francisco in fact. Although they had no job prospects or friends there, they set out for the Bay Area in '95, intent on following in the footsteps of some of their favorite bands.

"We came here because of bands like Swell and American Music Club and the Red House Painters," says Jonathan, "bands that were popular in the early '90s that came out of the city. They were a huge influence for us moodwise, and we thought that if they could make music here, maybe we can."

A year after they'd arrived, Jonathan and Devlin founded Half Film and began playing shows around town. Jonathan, who in addition to being pleasantly insecure when discussing his music also happens to be a decent self-promoter, made sure to send out demos and show fliers to his idols. It didn't take long for one of them to notice.

"It started out kind of as a musical mutual admiration society, and it turned into a friendship," remembers Monte Vallier, then-bassist for the S.F. noise pop band Swell and the producer of These Weeks. "Musically I think that both bands were trying to create moods and atmosphere, playing a lot with the aspects of underlying tension in music. I think the Caseworker is more adept than Half Film at relieving that tension. Songs are more -- I don't want to say poppier -- but tend to be catchier. And I think that part of being catchy is letting the listener relieve that tension."

Indeed, it didn't take long for Jonathan and Devlin to realize that Half Film simply wasn't going in the direction that they had envisioned. Compare its final LP, Road to the Crater, against These Weeks and it's easy to see what's missing: everything. If previous releases were pleasant sketches, collections of twinkling riffs and sincere, albeit tepid, vocals, These Weeks is a mesmerizing solar system of sounds. Soft-sung vocals orbit winsome slide guitars, bass lines trace elliptical patterns within a swirling atmosphere of reverb and noise -- and all of it revolves around a tight center of gravity, the lyrics, the themes, the dense history of a 10-year relationship pushed to its limits and finally crumbling.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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