Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Music Review: Future Clouds and Radar - Peoria

Future Clouds & Radar’s self-titled debut album was an ambitious and ballsy 27-song behemoth. At its best it was bold, experimental, and melodic indie-pop, with cryptic, sometimes mysterious lyrics and a mind-numbing number of musical styles synthesized into a creative and adventurous mixture.

Though its musical influences were sometimes too obvious – singer and lyricist Robert Harrison and the rest of the band clearly studied hard at Beatles U and probably minored in Guided By Voices. – its major flaw was that its sheer volume of material frequently varied in quality. For this reason comparisons to warts-and-all albums like The White Album and Sandinista were on target. It begged to be paired down and to have the fat trimmed (even the most successful giant albums contain some stink bombs; the Holy Grail in indieland, The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, would probably have been better as 60 Love Songs). Either a simple coincidence noticed by geeky music critics or tacit acknowledgment that this debut album was overly stuffed and jammed up with musical ideas, Future Clouds and Radar’s follow-up album Peoria checks in at just eight songs in under 35 minutes. Though musically reminiscent of that debut album – that Beatles influence hasn’t faded, and some of the songs are still saturated with a whole wonderful mess of guitars, horns, keyboards, beats, creeks, cracks, sci-fi noises, and claps – Peoria is more refined, direct, and accessible. It even contains identifiable themes that connect the songs.

Though the songs still contain a lot of instrumentation, there’s more breathing room this time around. Even better, the genre-hopping is more successful and less forced and self-indulgent than on the band’s sprawling debut. Several songs are simply built around guitars, keyboards, and strings, which gives the melodies a more prominent role than before; the album ends with a long instrumental section that nicely sums up the various musical tricks and traits employed throughout. If snatches of some songs are perhaps still too experimental for their own good – the opening horns on “Eighteen Months” are damn cheesy and the space alien noises on the last few minutes of “Mummified” are a bit excessive – overall the release places “traditional” melodies on an even playing field with the band’s more out-there tendencies.

The songs’ shimmering arrangements are sharply contrasted by the album’s mostly bleak subject matter. Much of the album can be interpreted as ruminations on mortality, isolation, and loneliness disguised as love songs (“We’re only dust,” Harrison deadpans in “Mummified”). Images of death, war, and violence run through nearly every song; it’s a veritable audio bone yard. “The Epcot View” references a “dark prince…licking the bones of his very last foe,” “Old Edmund Ruffin” opens with the heartwarming story of a drowned mockingbird, and in “The Mortal” Harrison sings about someone’s dream of being “alone on antipathy island surrounded by bitters and bones.” The album also includes enough mentions of burials and funerals to make an undertaker giddy, including the “victory coffin” of “Follow the Crane” and the lovely romantic sentiment Harrison expresses in “Mummified”: “there’s room for both of us/ in my cool sarcophagus.” Though Harrison’s lyrics are sometimes open-ended and allow some light to creep in, however uneasily or uncertain – closing track “Follow the Crane” implies a sense of fidelity and devotion in the face of death – the lyrics are mostly dark. “We all crawled like dogs from cradle to grave,” Harrison declares in “Mortal,” a humorless sentiment that is dominant throughout the album. Although Peoria wears its musical influences proudly, it’s still an exciting and musically textured album that shows Future Clouds and Radar effectively applying a more sophisticated instrumental and lyrical focus.

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