From Ringo on down, rock protocol has decreed that drummers’ solo projects, regardless of merit, are not to be taken seriously. Little else can explain the cold shoulder given to Brick Layer Cake, the brilliant vehicle for Todd Trainer. He is best known as the manic drummer for such Midwestern powerhouses as Breaking Circus, Rifle Sport and, most recently, Shellac — fine groups all, but even their best work is easily matched and usually surpassed by Trainer’s criminally neglected Brick Layer Cake output.
The Cake, which consists of Trainer on guitar and vocals and a shifting cast of co-conspirators like guitarists Gerald Boissy and Brian Paulson and, in live settings, Steve Albini on drums, debuted in 1990 with Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth, a six-song EP which establishes Trainer’s signature sound: skeletal song structures delivered at a dirge-like pace, huge, ringing major chords with plenty of distortion, slow, rasping vocals tinged with a convincing sense of righteousness and clever lyrics that breathe new life into such long-clichéd subject areas as death, drinking and decay. The overall effect, while probably not for everyone, is extremely powerful and surprisingly tuneful, with whopper hooks lurking beneath the guitar onslaught. (See “Clockwork” and “Happy Hour.”)
The following year’s Call It a Day EP (the CD of which includes all of Eye for an Eye) takes things a step further, with fuller production that turns Trainer’s bare-bones compositions into monstrous pop tunes. The lyrics, which had previously contented themselves with cynical witticisms, are stronger too, with a stinging indictment of the fashion and image industries (“Sitting Pretty”), a genuinely frightening tale of a childhood friend’s murder (“Killer”) and one of rock’s best songs about AIDS (“Kiss of Death”). This is Brick Layer Cake at its finest.
Tragedy-Tragedy, Trainer’s first full-length effort, mines essentially the same territory with similarly devastating results. He may be treading on thin creative ice by repeatedly hammering away at such tired topics as death (“Cold Day in Hell”), alcohol (“Thirteenth Drink”) and the apocalypse (“Doomsday”), but the dark obsessions somehow continue to sound fresh.