Monday, February 18, 2013

Antietam: Rope-a-Dope (1994)


Sort of overwhelming to come finally around to a close listen to one of your favorite band's favorite bands. Antietam not only has a remarkably similar history to Yo La Tengo, they're pals with the band and share their taste for feedback-drenched folk rock, a cheerily distorted Neil Young. Based on my exposure, this Kentucky band shares not their peers' warmth and humor, nor their love of variety and, well, songs. But Tara Key is an extraordinary guitarist (dig her stunningly lyrical playing on "Pine") whose searing riffs elevate out toward the night sky, even as she tempers it all with her deadpan southern-Nico drawl. (She periodically shares lead vocal duties with bassist Tim Harris and drummer John Madell, who... do their best Dean Wareham.)

Ira Kaplan himself guests on the gleefully circular "Hands Down," which feels strongly informed by the sound of alternative and indie circa 1994 with its toughened fuzz-punk shtick, even if Antietam's love of the simultaneous loud-soft dynamic vastly predates most of the radio-friendly groups that were bringing it to middle America around this time (and the bands that weren't, like L7). Unfortunately, while the remainder of the record is pleasant, this is as distinctive as the songwriting really gets -- unless I'm just not hearing something buried under the quite endearing sludge. It hasn't manifested itself as anything besides background music and inevitably lives in the shadow of YLT and the Clean, a little more rote and conventional than either.

But the band is terrific. They're best heard on the longer cuts, and the moments that stretch into a kind of intense and feverish loudness. The lengthy instrumental passages throughout are focused, weighty, and glorious, like the playful title cut. The florid city-sprawl of "What She Will" is like a blissful nightmare, My Bloody Valentine with meatier, fouler riffs, and the plod of the Madell-led "Leave Home" attains a thrilling, nocturnal melodrama as it progresses. Best of all is grand finale "Silver Solace," a pulsating trancelike straight line over and above which Key works her magic, the band topping itself out for ten minutes until finally she takes over with a her most wounded, cracked vocal line of the entire album in the final minutes.

I'm not really too taken with Rope-a-Dope on the whole but it's hard to deny that moments like this are intensely enjoyable. Perhaps best to abstain from a fully formed opinion on Antietam yet, then. A lot of it is par for the classicist indie rock course, but... maybe that's a good thing??

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Broken Social Scene (2005)

(Arts & Crafts)


No one who's been awake to the seamy culture around indie rock, on and offline, over the last decade and a half needs to be reminded that the "genre" -- which I dispute that it even is, but that's another matter -- has passed into an altogether messy and confused maturity. It's only natural that there'd be some post-modern adoption of "boring" as a kind of virtue; R.E.M. was even ahead of the pack on this by getting millions of people to buy into their own droning middle ages. Mostly there's that ugly stereotype of the stroller-wielding young married hipster drifting out to the Pavement reunion show talking about have you heard about these Fleet Foxes dudes? In other words, the indie rock fan that once sniped and bristled over Mom's adult contemporary that blared on between the daily traffic updates is now listening to what amounts to a friendly and harmless slight variation on adult contemporary. From Wilco to Feist, much as we may love these bands, they inevitably subsume us within a safety net of sorts.

Let's zero in on Feist long enough, though, to remember that she came to prominence as a member of Broken Social Scene, whose breakthrough You Forgot It in People is one of the landmarks of the early-2000s transformation of indie into a semi-viable commercial format. It was probably a CD -- and yes, most people did own it on CD -- that's lingered into the wallets tucked into the backs of those strollers. Less frequently mentioned is the follow-up record, a fatty, long, even overblown oddity simply called Broken Social Scene. BSS architect Kevin Drew confronts adulthood and staid workaday reality just as eagerly and tentatively as his peers, but he and the band find a new pathway through it, through noisy and murky yet still somehow comfortable music that keeps confrontation and chaos in check through wisdom, control, subtlety. This is the sound of a skeleton of an aging band acquiescing to growth and adulthood without submitting to its preordained architecture. It finds its own way to peace. As difficult, sprawling, challenging as it is, your relationship with it as it gradually reveals itself to you is so rewarding that it's like, I dunno, the shiny discs are gone but you're feeling out and establishing a passion for a band's intimate worlds again.

And you're not a teenager anymore, but that's all right; that means you don't need music to be as visceral as you used to, and the rumbling groove underneath everything that happens throughout Broken Social Scene will intrigue you more, will keep you coming back and paying attention. At the outset, "Our Faces Split the Coast in Half" is a slightly fragmented guitar-brass duet, then turns left into a persistent but fucked up, oceanic fury. It's the opposite of easygoing pop yet it doesn't seem inaccurate to call it mellow -- particularly for the way it strings you along, how it seems to be drifting into something else tentatively then doesn't. What does come next, the provocatively named "Ibi Dreams of Pavement," opens again as messy Replacements jam then makes you sway with its high-stakes high school band environment underneath a halfway-melody belted out screamingly in the unmistakable style of you-know-who.

These transformations are natural and seamless but so constant that it takes some to learn where songs actually begin and end, lending the full experience a White Album-like sense of journey. "7/4 (Shoreline)," yet again, is deceptively pretty just before propelling into a quickened soundscape, sinking and escaping into its breathy, vibrant hook; it's almost a lullaby. But what makes all this charming and addictive is not so much its eclecticism as the feeling that it's all a kind of frightened dabbling; "Fire Eye'd Boy" is funky, but only mildly -- and in a sincere way, not an incapable way. This is illustrated by the joke that opens "Swimmers" -- "gimme more of that beat / ungh" and then nothing. The ensuing song is classicist soft-baroque sans grandstanding, plus trip hop beat; a kooky conglomeration of things, but its final effect is a sobering backward look into one's own passions, an astonishing mixture of emotions. It tinges the present with nostalgia, especially for one who lived for music as an adolescent.

It's a hell of a thing that Kevin Drew and associates bury their elaborate constructions, but it gives the record an unusual collective energy and a feeling that it all must be heard together; in eight years I don't think I've ever separated its songs for a playlist or any such thing, which is nearly unheard of for me. "Hotel" might be thumping and nasty, but would its whispered hooks and shivering snakelike rhythm seem so beautiful without context? Why check? Maybe "HandJobs for the Holidays" would sound like pure corn on a mix CD of authentic surf rock or Hawaiian music but positioned as the tenth song on this album, its intricacy is something you remember and recognize immediately without ever being able to, say, hum it. Look, BSS is a limited outfit no doubt; Drew is not and never has been as sophisticated as he thinks he is; his weird shop-clerk smarminess comes through, especially on stuff like "Bandwidth," but hey, so does A.C. Newman's on his shit, and like Newman, Drew is a great listener, absorbs everything, and his best work reflects this. If there's no one really in the driver's seat enough to give the music a personal emotional importance, that's the major flaw here, but maybe it's our role in the end.

The next Broken Social Scene album wouldn't come off so well -- Forgiveness Rock Record would prove even looser and sloppier, its individual songs even less distinctive, but BSS captures the band at a perfect evolutionary moment at which they go apeshit but are also insular and grounded and careful. The plastic soul of "Major Label Debut" (smarminess again!) is lushly busy, lending it a mild trippiness and psychedelia, and it delights in mucking up a minimal groove with cinematic arranging and quick-stepping drums, but that groove is still there, still a lifeline running underneath it through every second of this album, and as a result the sensual, wide-eyed breakdown and rebuild has a life, an immediacy, that doesn't seem locked away from the listener. Again, the songs rely on one another -- A brief mood piece anchors each half, and take your pick: the watery mixed-up groove "Finish Your Collapse and Stay for Breakfast" or the trifling padding "Tremoloa Debut." I never think about either of them when they're not on, but I cannot imagine this album without them.

With that undercurrent of mystery allowing a set of songs to add up to much more, this vividly recalls Murmur, but the album it usually calls to mind for me is Beggars Banquet -- there's that sense of things almost accidentally falling together when a band plays, a kind of accidental magic. Pavement had this too, and they're of course explicitly referenced here, not least in the way that the group delights in trying to subvert an irresistibly sexy hook like the one on "Bandwidth," or letting things that sound like mistakes or errors in judgment stay on the record and become an integral part of it. You don't just get to hear the music falling into place, you hear it falling back apart again -- yet still giving pleasure as it does so.

The rock press has always loved the narrative of a supergroup, and in the indie rock sphere the tightly controlled New Pornographers have never offered much in the way of interpersonal meandering and dramatics. So BSS gives us the Hollywood narrative of the struggling collective making good, disparate voices ringing out together. Most are official members of the band -- like Leslie Feist, captured here just before she catapulted to MOR-indie fame with the exquisite Let It Die. Some aren't, like Murray Lightburn on "Our Faces Split the Coast in Half." But above all, the large and sprawling band sounds as big and bulky as they are -- "Fire Eye'd Boy" is tricky rock just as complicated as the personnel would justify, building to a sound that's truly enormous, lovingly offset by Andrew Whiteman's Kevin Shields-like ghost vocal. By the same token, "Windsurfing Nation" sounds like a band having fun in the studio Tusk-style, maybe coked up a little. Our generation didn't get a Fleetwood Mac, so let us have this! (The song's compressed intimacy and small chaos against pulsating backbeat actually anticipates Radiohead's future disco direction by a couple of years, but that's neither here or there.) It's a crazy combo of art-rock and disco-funk and hip hop, the kind of song you must know well to fully appreciate no matter how charmed you are by Feist chanting her way through it with k-Os, truly lively but deliberately mucked up because all they want is a FEELINNNNN.

And what can a large group like this with a mad scientist like Drew at the helm do better than a wild, over the top climax? "Marquee Moon" gets referenced twice. First is the segue that leads into "Superconnected," modeled on the Television song's pretty little guitar coda before it's back into crunchy-hook indie rock guitar very straightforward and very much in vogue circa 2004-05, but then comes the really glorious catharsis and the rocketship lands, and we really don't wanna think about those things anymore. The nine-minute "It's All Gonna Break" is epic punk that does finally land a few emotional punches in the Conor Oberst vein, but that merely prefaces the "Marquee Moon" buildup and release. Totally contrived but, you know, so what? And the grand finale is a quote that takes us all the way back to a song that's more or less the opposite of BSS's entire modus operandi for this hour-plus LP: Roy Orbison's "Running Scared" and its bashed-out, lovelorn, melodramatic grand finale. Because we can't and won't advance on that, and they know it -- and that understanding made them what they were in this strange, florid, directionless but intensely habit-forming moment.