Issue #103: Mortal Mirror by Quix*o*tic
March 5, 2018
Released On July 9, 2002
Released By Kill Rock Stars Records
A man I work with is writing a book. Set in medieval Scotland, the narrative stretches a generation, spans a war and loves lost, families created, and he’s stuck in his rough initial draft. Talks after meetings, on the way to the parking lot, or snatched moments between classes began with general writer’s shop talk, but over the past months have spiraled down into his block with revision. Using his extensive researching abilities and academic mindset, the man has exhausted the Internet looking for writers writing about writing, searching for tools and methods they use to produce their novels. Frustrated with that, with the whole writing process, he sat down in my room last week, just plopped into a chair with a totally uncharacteristically loose air, and said “I need something to tell me what to do next.”
The worst part about teaching other people to write is that I can’t really teach that. Guide, sure, be a sounding ear and eye and utilize that vocabulary of writing and building to work through problems they’re having, but ultimately the best work reflects the creator’s mind, the part of them I can’t see or understand until they craft it on the page. The best work, I want to shake into his ears, is just you remade into words, brushstrokes, refrains. It’s that unflinching honesty packed into Mortal Mirror that drew me to the record and has kept it with me all these years.
Despite its overall melodic humming, there’s nothing particularly sophisticated about this record; the shiniest bits come from the innate talent of the Billotte voices, the smoky apathy that is just perfectly velvet femininity. In the rather sharp divide of the record between original songs and covers, you can read the relative simplicity of the band’s sound. Arrangements in tracks like “Ice Cream Sundae” and “Anonymous Face” play straightforwardly and identifiable by genre, the kind of thing you’d practice as a “blues riff” when you’re learning the guitar or a tempo exercise in piano, but that’s not to say the band is unimaginative by any means. Years ago, I first found Quix*o*tic as a member of the Kill Rock Stars street team, when the Internet was new to me and I used it primarily to steal music and read about bands. My first listen of “Ice Cream Sundae,” tracked down in a squirrelly weird way through another fan of KRS who sent me a burned CD with a variety of stuff on it, mesmerized my young ears. That twangy, quick repetition banged out on the guitar pulled me to attention, and when that lovely, sexy voice purred out I fell into the song. Her little half-shouted “oh!” halfway through still shoots me straight through gut, closing my eyes and making me shut anyone up stupid enough to talk while I’m listening.
Striking, and still compelling, about this record is the willingness to play with a dark minimalism obviously important to the band despite the surface simplicity. How they handle the cover songs demonstrates an ability to play their instruments with knowledge and skill; contrasting those songs against their own hypnotic creations, with that noticeable divide, shows the kind of thumbing of a nose against expectation that I love about riot grrl, noise, punk, all those off-radio genres and the art I love, the novels dog-eared and worn on my shelves. Taking the guts to pour yourself out in your work for public consumption and doing it well will always charm your listeners.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Displaced underground rock that’s just as home within the classic sound of Motown as they are with nascent metal.
Dig, if you will, a momentary glance at the origins of the word from which Quix*o*tic takes its name. Quixotic comes from the name of the titular character of Cervantes’ late-Renaissance proto-novel Don Quixote and refers to his habit of going off half-cocked and acting impractically, especially in pursuit of a romantic ideal. In this way, almost every band is a quixotic enterprise, such is the unlikelihood that they will find an audience or break through in any way at all. But when you come up with a sound like what we hear on Mortal Mirror, the quixotic qualities of a career in music are amplified way past 11. There’s rockabilly, Druidic folk, Motown, country and western, blues, Goth, metal, and other sounds that can only be classified as post-punk, which is the ultimate “you know it when you hear it” genre. How did sisters Christina and Mira Billotte, the main protagonists of Quix*o*tic, come up with this sound? And what does it say about me that as soon as I heard it I said to myself, “Now this, this is my shit?” The answer to both questions might just simply be that we like the same stuff. Aside from the strands of genres mentioned above, the DNA of Quix*o*tic includes things like Siouxsie & The Banshees, Young Marble Giants, Patsy Cline, and Helium — some of my favorites, and I would imagine theirs too. In the case of Helium, the connection is very real, as Christina played with Mary Timoney in an earlier band called Autoclave, and I can hear some of their deliberate and scuzzy sound on a few of these songs. One clue to the madness in their method is their cover of “Tell It Like It Is,” Aaron Neville’s New Orleans soul classic, originally from 1966. With just a snarly bass guitar and some spacious drumming as a background, Mira lays the song out in her trademark style, slightly flat and with a deceptively naive affect — but also total command. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and after a few listens, I realized what a great singer she is. They also improbably deliver on a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Lord Of This World,” which may have been a suggestion from third member Mick Barr, known recently for avant garde metal in bands like Orthrelm and Ocrilim. The twin poles of Neville and Sabbath provide some clues to the doomy romanticism of their own songwriting. A good example is “The Breeze,” an absolutely unforgettable tune that David Lynch wishes he knew about. Again it’s just bass and drums and Mira’s haunting voice delivering lines like “So you say you’ve had enough of this world / I say you haven’t!” or “Oh, to be the breeze in the tops of the trees / To be nowhere.” Did you get a chill? Trust me, there are no open windows nearby, just a breath of Billotte sisters shamanism. Maybe there was just too much power there, as the sisters haven’t worked together since Mira left to form White Magic in 2002. Christina got a degree in ceramics and has been recently spotted in a band called Permanent Waves — I could only find a 15-second clip and her distinctive guitar sounds better than ever. I started out by talking about a word — well, here’s another one for you: According to her Wikipedia page, Mira Billotte, is a modern trobairitz, which was a 12th century female troubadour from the Occitan region in southern Europe. You learn something new every day and I think I will be learning from Quix*o*tic, and all their precedents and antecedents, for a very long time.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a Goth Jefferson Airplane? No, it’s Quix*o*tic’s second album, Mortal Mirror! Can you tell how happy I am? No? Come lurk on my level friends as I explain to you why you need to stop what you’re doing and listen to this album. It is quite possibly the best album I have heard in a long time. Less than three seconds in to “Ice Cream Sundae,” I thought to myself, “Wow, this is dark and creepy, but it’s not trying too hard… like some “goth” artists… coughcoughMarylinMansoncough.” I went on to think this sounds a lot like “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, which was followed by a thought of “I bet they can’t keep this up.” Turns out, Quix*o*tic didn’t just keep it up — they took it to a whole new level. The album encapsulates a wonderful feeling of tension without any distortion, screaming, or any other blatant theatrics. I’ve never heard a band master this feeling so consistently and melodically, which is why I have so many artists on my mp3 player (yes, I still have an mp3 player) that only have one or two songs to their name. You can save your singles hate for another forum because I’m turning over a new leaf. Today, the entire Mortal Mirror album has been uploaded to its permanent home on my Zune. That’s right, I have a Zune. Bring on the Zune hate. You can’t hurt me when I listen to Mortal Mirror.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
This pick is interesting to me, because I saw Quix*o*tic once. It was 1998, and I had no idea who they were — they were in town opening for the bands I was there to see (Blonde Redhead and Burning Airlines) and I didn’t even know they were on the gig. Sadly, they did not make a good initial impression on me. The songs were strange, stilted, and felt empty somehow. It seemed like they were going for minimalist post-punk but didn’t quite have the chops. I remember a friend of mine looking over at me after 8 minutes or so and saying, “When is this band gonna actually start playing? Right now it just seems like they’re doing a really long soundcheck.” I knew exactly what he meant. A couple of weeks later, the first Quix*o*tic EP came out, and I found out that this was Christina Billotte’s new band. I’d previously been a big Billotte fan — both Autoclave and Slant 6 had been big hits with me. I was bummed to realize that I had not gotten down with her new band. And I really hadn’t — that initial experience was enough to keep me from ever checking Quix*o*tic out again… at least, until this album showed up in my OYR assignment list. “What the hell,” I thought. “That was literally 20 years ago, maybe my opinion will be different now.” And it is, though that may have something to do with the fact that Mortal Mirror is their 2002 second LP, recorded four years after I encountered them and with future Crom-Tech/Krallice shredder Mick Barr replacing original bassist Brendan Majewski. Maybe I still won’t like their early stuff — I suppose I’ll find out eventually. For now, I will say that I really like this album, which is a surprise both pleasant and welcome. It’s nice to realize that my initial impression of Christina Billotte as a world-class talent wasn’t that wrongheaded after all. I can still hear a little bit of that minimalist post-punk vibe on this album — “The Breeze” is the Mortal Mirror track that most resembles that early live performance — but even when Quix*o*tic dips back into that particular trick bag, it seems way more assured than it did in their early days. And a lot of the more minimal tracks on Mortal Mirror — here I am thinking of “Anonymous Face” and “Tell It Like It Is” in particular — are just deeper dives into the tough, gothic girl-group vibe that showed up on later Slant 6 records at times. On other songs, like opener “Ice Cream Sundae” or the title track, I hear a much stronger connection with the intense yet melodic goth-punk vibes that dominated the Autoclave and Slant 6 songs I loved the most. That’s the most welcome discovery I could have made about Mortal Mirror. As much as I loved Autoclave and Slant 6, I always wanted to like Quix*o*tic. It’s nice to finally realize that I do.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Mira Billotte, Christina Billotte, & Mick Barr.
A few years ago, I got really into reading music history books, particularly those chronicling the independent rock scenes of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The big three titles I read were Please Kill Me, Our Band Could Be Your Life, and Girls To The Front. All three books got me interested in checking out a number of bands and labels that I had only ever read in passing before (to name a few: Beat Happening, Heavens To Betsy, and Bratmobile). After reading those books, I had resolved to continue to explore more music that had similar sounds — whether by association with well-established indie labels (Dischord Records, K-Records, and Kill Rock Stars were three of the bigger names on my personal radar), or by association with other acts (be it that they toured together, shared members, or even just given a shout-out in the liner notes of each other’s albums). As you might guess based on my usage of the past tense, I didn’t exactly fulfill this goal I’d set for myself. Occasionally I’ll put on Jamboree but that’s about it. Yet listening to Quix*o*tic this past week, I’ve realized how much I still enjoy this particular style of stripped down indie rock. (Oh! And what a coincidence: while the band was still together, they had toured with Fugazi and this very album was released on Kill Rock Stars. It’s strange that I hadn’t ever come across this band before.) There’s something very inviting about Mortal Mirror, as if it doesn’t matter how skilled or competent you are at making or understanding music, all that matters is that you want to be there listening to it, and that if you wanted to, you could play along. By no means would I call this an album made by amateurs, but there’s a very loose feeling to the composition of these songs — the sudden cowbell and woodblock interjections of “To This World I Must Give In” (at least it sounds like a cowbell and a woodblock) is playful compared to the repetitive, distorted guitars that make up the rest of the song, and the tempo changes of “Forget to Sing” fall somewhere between “manic surf rock” and “sinister garage rock.” There’s a reason so many books have been written on the subject of the overlooked alternative acts of nearly every decade, and that reason is because there are so many bands that get overlooked in favor of more conventional and structural performers. Quix*o*tic may not be the world’s most radio-friendly act (and with a name like that, it’s clear they weren’t trying to be), but Mortal Mirror is an essential experience for anyone who has worn out their copies of The Argument and All Hands On The Bad One.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
For an album where the vocals are so arresting, I am actually fascinated that my favorite song was the instrumental title track. I think it has something to do with the anticipation of the vocals and then the denial of the resolution of that anticipation. I really shouldn’t isolate the title track, though, because it’s my favorite only as a companion with the track that follows: a cover of a song called “Sitting In The Park>” (I don’t believe I’ve heard the original before, but it’s entirely possible. Quix*o*tic take songs and make them their own, leaving just ghostly trail back to the originals that’s there if you’re looking for it, but you have to know where to look.), which has such lovely vocals, that the listener feels like the preceding track was just a buildup to this payoff. It occurs to me that all of my favorite parts of this album are the parts where they start playing something that seems like it’s going to be one thing and then turns out to be completely different. On “Anonymous Face,” they start the song with what should be the hi-hat count off for a loud and raucous punk song. But they pull back the curtain to reveal a slinky, jazzy shuffle, singing “You don’t know me, but I know you.” Quix*o*tic see us, and they are already four steps ahead of us. The thrill is in trying to keep up.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
In researching Mortal Mirror, I came across the Pitchfork review of it. The writer, Eric Carr, gave the album a 3.9 and proceeded to read the riot act to the entire country of Canada because of how bad he perceived it to be. He refers to the record as “aural mud,” and faults it for being repetitive, simplistic, and uninteresting. Except that’s exactly what Quix*o*tic does. They make highly repetitive goth-surf-whatever rock that repeats a motif—bass, guitar, vocal melody — until it’s drilled into your brain. The songs overpower you by sheer force of will. In other words, they’re catchy in the same way that commercial jingles are catchy. If you told me that there was an album that sounds like if Jefferson Airplane had been influenced by the Misfits — another fantastic punk band who also happened to be “repetitive” — and that it was worth hearing, I’d have to wonder: 1.) What are you on?, and 2.) Can I have some? But it’s true. The turbulent unease that permeates the album more than makes up for any alleged (over)simplicity. Making a perpetual sense of dread sound hypnotic is commendable all on its own. Hell, most horror movies can’t do that.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Quixotic can be defined a few different ways, depending on the context in which it is applied. One can be viewed as idealistic to the point of being a starry-eyed romantic or, the excess idealism can be viewed as impracticality of a foolish nature. While technically it’s all the same, one clearly denotes a more forgiving and admirable quality over the other. Though the name of the Canadian group overall and not just this 2002 album, Quix*o*tic can definitely describe the central takeaway from this trio’s second full length. This Washington D.C. band uses goth as its secondary descriptor but the remaining alignment with indie and garage revival music really gets molded in a particular direction that moves away from the lo-fi but still upbeat character so synonymous with the two latter styles. Guitarist Christina Billotte and drummer/vocalist/sister Mira Billotte share vocal duties and in either case, what Quix*o*tic* offer is decidedly reserved. Tempo and melody both are kept to a minimum in the movement department and where titles like opener “Ice Cream Sundae” or “Tell It Like It Is” might offer anticipation of more conventional garage spunk and indie spark but that’s how Quix*o*tic makes itself stand out: Not standing out. There are flashes of surf rock and surf pop guitar tone on tracks like “Anonymous Face,” as well as a faint doo-wop writing structure on tracks like the aforementioned “Tell It Like It Is” and “Sitting In The Park.” However, these would-be moment of compositional intrigue take second position to the slow and-or march-like consistency that reflects an emo and goth blend through the whole record. This is a slow record — quite literally — that prompts deliberate listening. Quix*o*tic’s sonic ideal is musically quixotic if you’re facing a sunny day or want to go on a long carefree drive/jog/walk etc. but perfectly quixotic for those rainy days of personal hibernation. It all just depends on how you choose to view it.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
All talented musicians in their own right, the musical skill here is more of conceptual restraint and scrupulous execution.
This record is all kinds of dope. It’s so rare that a rock record has so many of the trappings of my favorite hip hop records, but Mortal Mirror does! I love the overall darkness of the album. It feels like the entire project was produced by David Axelrod, the producer behind some of the scariest hip hop samples of the mid ’60s and early ’70s. It’s the spooky tremolo of the lead guitar combined with the rolling bass lines of “Open Up The Walls” and “Masterpeaceful” that give off such a sinister yet funky vibe. These are the very sounds that hip hop heavyweights DJ Premier or Dr. Dre would look for to cook up our favorite beats. I also admire the minimalism of this record. Despite the fact that the vast majority of the album is only drums, guitar and bass, there’s never a time where you feel like the song’s point isn’t coming across effectively. In that respect, there’s a very Mobb Deep/Wu-Tang/MF Doom aesthetic that carries throughout. And finally, Mortal Mirror features covers of two of my “all-time” records — “Sitting In The Park>” and “Tell It Like It Is.” These two classics have been covered a thousand times over, but never with such a bare bones, dusty approach. The only thing that’s missing here is a guest verse from Prodigy (R.I.P.). In the words of the incomparable Curtis Mayfield, “right on for the darkness.”
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
We live in a big, beautiful world. It seems weird to say that these days without acknowledging that there are profoundly shitty things about the world, too, but one feeling has really persisted after spending time with Mortal Mirror, and that’s gratitude. Gratitude for the diversity of people and art and perspectives that makes it possible for me to put headphones in and listen to a profoundly surprising and interesting combination of sounds like this. Would I have thought to take classic R&B, doo-wop, and surf rock forms and arrangements and run them through a disaffected goth filter? Absolutely not! Is the world a bigger, more beautiful place now that we know what that sounds like? It absolutely is! Quix*o*tic’s cover of “Sitting In The Park” gives the song a personality transplant, with a healthy dash of ennui that lends previously straightforward lyrics a new sense of depth. Same goes for “Tell It Like It Is” — the stripped down arrangement and the matter-of-fact delivery of the lyrics give the song a more grounded feel, less like a tell-off from a distance and more like a letter written and hand-delivered. But the album isn’t just a fun thought experiment — I’m completely enamored with “On My Own.” The melody that accompanies those lyrics is mesmerizing. I found myself humming it (poorly, though; it’s fairly difficult to nail the second half) while walking around Home Depot on Sunday afternoon. Cans of Raid, light fixtures, and Quix*o*tic filling the space in between. How delightfully random is that? Like I said — big, beautiful world.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Hidden in the sparse simplicity that somehow manages to draw tangible lines from doo-wop to post-punk, you’ll find a lot of charm within Mortal Mirror. So much in fact that you’ll quickly understand how and why Christina Billotte became the underground rock royalty that she is… or at least should be if anyone is still lagging in support. Outside of the exiguous instrumentation and shadowy aesthetic, you won’t find much cohesion here as the band bounces around genres in the name of rock — which they lovingly showcase from covering Aaron Neville and Black Sabbath within a few minutes of each other. You’ll find your own allure within their sound, whether it be the intriguing surf rock (“Forget To Sing“) or delicate crooning (“Sitting In The Park“), and it’s all more than enough to make you put it on and on again in an endless cycle of clandestine musical mélange. Personally, that mélange hits me harder and harder each listen as I just can’t seem to shake the feeling of The Shaggs within the music. Yes, The Shaggs — the (in)famous ’60s garage rock group that was basically The Room for music fans if anybody had ever dared to compare Tommy Wiseau to Man Ray. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to draw this comparison too. Many prominent rock musicians that came out in the late ’80s and early ’90s espoused the band’s greatness, most notably Kurt Cobain. Who knows how if the Billotte sisters were part of this group, if they came to The Shaggs via word-of-mouth in dingy green rooms at small venues, or if they had curiously decided to hear for themselves after hearing Frank Zappa call them “better than The Beatles.” Doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Quix*o*tic seems to strip away the innocence and primordial elements of The Shaggs’ music, and augments their minimalist and irregular approaches with wonderful mystique, as well as talent that no one in their right mind could fault. (Well, there was that Pitchfork review where the writer slammed them for basically being too punk, but I did say “in their right mind,” didn’t I?) This might be climbing down too far into the rabbit hole of Mortal Mirror, but if that’s not what they wanted, then the Billotte sisters shouldn’t have made that hole so inviting as they burrowed deeper and deeper with each new style jump and chord avoidance on this salient and indelible record. No looking back out of the hole necessary here. Just keep digging deeper.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Kool Roots by Earth & Stone
Chosen By Jeremy Shatan