Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rediscover - Now It's Overhead - Fall Back Open

Originally published at Go there.

Released in 2004 to lukewarm reviews, Fall Back Open offers up a heavy dose of postmodern emo anxiety. The sophomore effort from Now It's Overhead places an emphasis on atmospheric textures and production techniques that help accentuate the album's bleak lyrics and dark tone. Though it's certainly not a landmark album and its influences are readily apparent, it also never wanders off listlessly down the path of obtuse experimentation or bloated self-indulgence. Nearly five years after the fact, it sounds better and more relevant than it did upon its initial release.

The musicians that recorded the album under the moniker Now It's Overheard are perhaps best known for their work in other projects. Lead singer and lyricist Andy LeMaster has played as a member of Bright Eyes' backing band and has produced a horde of albums through his Chase Park Transduction recording studio. Athenians (studies show approximately 30% of all musicians are from Athens) Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor are members in Azure Ray, and drummer Clay Leverett has played in a number of Athens bands.

Still, Now It's Overhead circa Fall Back Open was primarily a vehicle for LeMaster's musical vision, which was hinted at on the band's debut album but more fully formed with this second release. In describing the album - and forgiving the hint of over-seriousness - LeMaster has stated that it "deals with seeking fulfillment and searching for something and realizing that what you've found isn't it." How an album with such a theme didn't ride a bullet to the top of the charts and land the band on TRL playing grabass with Carson Daly is beyond me.

Many of the lyrics drip with insecurity and an unhealthy mixture of futility, boredom and angst; the kicks sought after in these songs are short lived and usually result in serious mental anguish and brooding about mortality. Much of the album plays like a trip inside the psyche of someone who's damn close to, to use the clinical term, cracking up. With a nasal singing voice that sounds a restrained Jeff Mangum, LeMaster expresses these vulnerabilities without sounding excessively pansy-ass or melodramatic.

Opening track "Wait In a Line" evokes a sweaty nightclub scene of blinking lights and drunk chicks vomiting into seedy bathroom stalls, with LeMaster sardonically noting that despite the temporary diversions granted by these nighttime dalliances, "Gravity catches up." On its surface "Surrender" is an ambivalent love song, but also hints at an unspecified and seemingly inevitable personal disaster: Perhaps the album's most jarring track, "Reverse" lets the listener know that the bastards are at the gate and will probably break through. It's a picture of someone unable to fight off various unnamed threats; best just to admit defeat now before it gets any more difficult. Even the album's ballads wallow in such murk. Master of morose Conor Oberst provides backing vocals on the title track, a depiction of someone mired in a particularly unpleasant comedown. It's the morning after with all the shame, guilt, regret, and cuts and scrapes it brings.

The musical arrangements enhance the songs' textures and give them additional depth. Heavy with reverb and layered instruments (including synthesizers that don't massacre the songs), and occasionally reminiscent of bands like Spiritualized and My Bloody Valentine, the sound itself is still hard to neatly define. Songs like "Wait In a Line," "Surrender," "Profile," and "Reverse" are compressed and jittery, with stabbing guitars and pulsing rhythms that complement the tensions that are played out in the lyrics and contribute to the songs' dark undertones. Other songs are far more hazy and smoky. The title track, "Turn & Go," and album closer "A Little Consolation" feature more subtle and reserved arrangements that add some much needed variation to the album's sometimes too-uniform sound.

"It was a long year and I wasted it/ Now each breath's getting shorter," LeMaster laments above a mostly acoustic melody on "The Decision Made Itself." It's a nice summation of the album as a whole; tension and boredom surface time and time again. Any distractions - the searing club lights of "Wait In a Line" or the adults-only classifieds of "Profile" - are always temporary diversions that fix nothing. Successfully navigating that fine line between emo and overly emotional, Fall Back Open is an atmospheric snapshot of anxiety and the inability to escape it.

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