Monday, February 23, 2009

Golden Bear: Everest

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If one of the goals of an EP is to make the listener want to hear more the second it ends, then Golden Bear's Everest EP is a resounding success. Its five songs are melodic and catchy bits of indie pop that lodge in the listener's head somewhere between last night's drunken revelry and the morning after's headache-inducing sunlight. These songs settle in and don't leave easily, and that's a good thing. The EP's tracks are free of the frills, extraneous diddling and self-indulgent experimentalism that have been the downfall of countless indie bands. The band seems to know that sometimes it's okay to be straightforward and direct, leaving the pretentiousness to those hapless and overly sincere bands that litter the landscape.

The band plays what it describes as "galactic-forest rock," a term most likely devised to confound gullible music journalists and bloggers and to give the band a memorable jumping off point. Yet whether the term is a lark or genuine is beside the point; the songs on Everest are strong enough to stand on their own, without needing the support of vague and obtuse genre-bending categories. The Austin, TX band - given the current glut of bands hailing from that city, we should seriously consider tagging them before they are released into the musical wilds - shows enough musical and lyrical dexterity on this EP to distinguish themselves from their peers.

The songs here are four-minute bursts heavy with guitars, drums, occasional horns, dueling keyboards and up-front vocals. Amidst many indie bands' seemingly willful obtuseness - if it's incomprehensible and murky it must be deep and meaningful - such an organic approach is welcome. The production is clean and the arrangements are unapologetically up tempo; opener "Night Lights" starts with electric guitars and drums, "All the Stars" is built around nice group harmonies and the requisite horns - every indie album must include horns - and closing track "Miracle Mile" wraps up the EP nicely with more guitars and drums. The band's sound recalls a number of other bands - most often Built to Spill and, to these ragged ears at least, Pavement in a pinch - without sounding derivative.

Indeed, Chris Gregory's vocals are at times reminiscent of Doug Martsch, minus that voice's occasional thinness and compression. The songs are frequently dryly humorous and sometimes dour; their lyrics contain countless references to lost time and the future, coupled with a confused and restless psyche spinning its wheels and just killing time. "I might break the law/ Or go insane if I don't find some peace of mind," Gregory deadpans on "All the Stars;" while later on the title track he admits that "All those fantasies I started believing/ Show no signs of coming true." Still the EP isn't sad-sack depressing - plenty of doses of comedy and hope creep in, especially in the wonderfully ambiguous "Future Blues" - and the band manages to successfully navigate between punchy arrangements and intelligent if sometimes serious lyrics.

Though in some ways the Everest EP doesn't stray too far from the sound of previous album To the Farthest Star, it's an instantly likeable EP that's both easy on the ears and worthy fodder for all those indie armchair psychologists. While some bands lose points and shatter their reputations in the name of absurd experimentation, Golden Bear shows that sometimes a direct approach is the best way to go.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Revisit: Lou Reed and John Cale - Songs For Drella

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Regardless of whether it's because it marks a crucial chapter in music history or simply because we can't help but watch a train wreck, any talk about the shared legacies of Lou Reed and John Cale inevitably turns to the gory details about the prolonged pissing contest the two artists have had over the years. Ever since that fateful day Cale was unceremoniously ousted from the Velvet Underground at the behest of a control-mongering Reed -let's be honest here - the two men have had a bizarre and often contentious sparring match that rivals any type of melodrama you'll see in a television soap opera.

Yet for all the hard feelings, bruised egos and darts thrown about in print media since Cale's departure, the two men's limited post-Velvets collaborations have mostly been respectable. Reed and Cale shared a stage with singer and cautionary tale Nico in an oft-bootlegged (and now commercially available) 1972 show in France, where the three former bandmates performed mellow, somewhat acoustic takes of various songs. Less successful -and that's being charitable - was the Velvet's ill-fated and legacy-humping reunion tour (and substandard live album, natch) in the early 1990s.

In between that Bataclan one-off novelty and the reunion clusterfuck, Reed and Cale created Songs for Drella. Their most successful and creative collaboration, the album is an emotional and sincere (if occasionally fictionalized and romanticized) concept album about the life and death of pop artist and now crudely commercialized icon Andy Warhol. A sparsely arranged album based around Reed's guitars and Cale's keyboards and occasional strings, its songs trace a rough chronology from Warhol's childhood in Pittsburgh to his eventual death in 1987. It's a moving and striking homage to the artist as a person instead of his more widely known, primarily distant public persona, and still stands as one of the most inventive concept albums to date.

Giving those armchair psychologists who view Reed as a diabolical control freak plenty of ammunition, Reed handles the bulk of the vocals here, sometimes to mixed results. Occasionally the vocals are over-enunciated and far too over the top (especially on "Starlight"), an unfortunate and frankly annoying tendency that has plagued Reed throughout his post-VU career. Yet these cases are rare and most of Reed's vocals are compelling. Opening track "Small Town" begins with Cale's bouncy keyboards as it describes the young Warhol - "Bad skin/ Bad eyes/ Gay and fatty" - and his desire to get the hell out of his Pittsburgh hometown. Up tempo and dryly humorous, it establishes the theme of Warhol as artistic visionary that later surfaces throughout the album. "Open House" offers brief biographical sketches as it portrays Warhol looking back at his Czechoslovakian heritage, against Cale's piano melody that simply repeats the same two notes. "Work" and "Images" take a crack at Warhol's artistic philosophy ("images are worth repeating") and approximate the Velvet's style, especially in the electric viola that tears through the latter song.

The tracks sung by Cale usually take a decidedly different approach. With the exception of the manic "Trouble With Classicists" and the dully electric "Forever Changed," Cale's songs are mostly hushed and languid, relying on atmospherics, strings, and keyboards to convey Warhol's story. "Style It Takes" and "Faces and Names" are both airy and floating, with somewhat orchestral strings, subdued percussion, and a fluid guitar line. Cale's depiction of Warhol is similarly heartfelt and sympathetic; the lyrics read like a eulogy to the artist. These songs also straddle the line between biographical reporting and mythmaking; anything that could be perceived as a character flaw in Warhol is instead depicted as the quirks or eccentricities of a misunderstood genius.

The songs that focus on mortality and aging, often in the guise of the two musicians offering a farewell to Warhol with a mixture of regret and pathos, still remain the album's true centerpieces. It's on these songs where both Reed and Cale explore themes that extend far beyond the sphere of a Warhol retrospective. "A Dream" is perhaps the album's standout track; a spoken word piece with Cale accompanied by minimal piano and brushes of percussion, it depicts Warhol pouring over his past in a dream, both his Factory crowd and artistic inspiration long gone. As Factory shadows from Warhol's earlier years flit in and out, Cale imagines the artist as brooding and pensive, as he recalls everything from not being invited to Reed's wedding to being shot by Valerie Solanis in 1968 ("There's blood leaking through my shirt/ From those scars from being shot"). Similarly, Reed provides his own tribute in closing song "Hello It's Me." Backed by Cale's viola, it's one of Reed's more confessional and emotional songs, thankfully free of the macho armor and posturing that have sunk too many of his post- VU albums. It's a goodbye disguised as an apology, where Reed does a shitload of pride swallowing, blankly admitting that he has "some resentments that can never be unmade."

Though Songs for Drella doesn't match the musicians' output from either The Velvet Underground and Nico or White Light White Heat, it's still one of music's more unassuming and unimposing concept albums. It focuses not on the aloof and cool public persona usually associated with Warhol, but instead on a poignant and personal depiction of Warhol as someone with insecurities and doubts about his life and what it's meant. Though it's likely that Lou Reed and John Cale will never collaborate together again - the punches that the two men still occasionally throw at each other don't count - Songs for Drella is a nice closing chapter to that relationship.

Various Artists - Dark Was the Night

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Compilation charity albums are frequently a mixed bag of odds and ends, with a couple gems sprinkled in among the more lackluster musical curiosity pieces. Although the noble intentions of these albums are commendable, the actual finished product is frequently underwhelming. Something along the lines of the supremely disappointing Vic Chesnutt tribute too often seems to be the norm. Released when there was actually some buzz about Chesnutt breaking into the mainstream, artists like R.E.M. and Sparklehorse offered revelatory interpretations of Chesnutt tunes alongside turgid reworks from the likes of lightweights like Live, Garbage, and, ugh, Hootie and the Blowfish.

Produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National and benefiting the AIDS awareness organization Red Hot, Dark Was the Night fortunately contains none of these drawbacks. Simply put, it just might be the best compilation released this decade: ecstatic press materials and Uncut previews comparing it to the seminal No Alternative aren't as outlandish or excessive as they appear at first blush. Though the enduring mystique of No Alternative has perhaps caused some of its flaws to be overlooked - along with quality tracks by Nirvana, Pavement, Sonic Youth and Uncle Tupelo among others, it also included duds from Goo Goo Dolls, Matthew Sweet and Buffalo Tom- Dark Was the Night might be destined for a similar canonization. It boasts a stellar cast of indie artists, including Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Cat Power and Kevin Drew, as well as a few old-timers like Yo La Tengo, David Byrne and Stuart Murdoch.

Although only the most devoted - and perhaps uncritical - music fans will like all the songs included here, the two discs offer a solid cross section of indie music's often divergent trends and styles. Though the album covers such a broad spectrum, the sequencing works; rarely does the album sound like a disjointed collection of singles you'll never hear on mainstream radio. Of the more frenetic tracks included, opener "Knotty Pine" by Dirty Projectors and David Byrne, "Lenin" by Arcade Fire and "You Are the Blood" by Sufjan Stevens are the most memorable, with Stevens transforming the Castanets original into a 10 minute mass of distortion and fuzz that's a radical departure from his more straightforward and melodic "States" albums. Yet the most affecting songs are those rooted in an acoustic sensibility. Grizzly Bear's simple "Deep Blue Sea," Iron and Wine's "Stolen Houses (Die)" and final track "Love vs. Porn" by Kevin Drew are among the starkest songs included, featuring little more than hushed guitars and creaky vocals. Conor Oberst's song of sordid hookups and morning after regrets "Lua" carries a similar tone and is sung as a duet with Gillian Welch, whose addition offsets Oberst's tendency to periodically wallow in self pity. "El Caporal" from My Morning Jacket is built around a catchy melody and horns, while The National's dryly humorous "So Far Around the Bend" is bouncy and also prominently features violins.

A number of cover songs are also included and mostly remain faithful to the original versions. The Books and Jose Gonzalez offer a strong interpretation of Nick Drake's "Cello Song," Dave Sitek of TV On the Radio transforms the Troggs' "With a Girl Like You" into an unholy union of shoegaze and drone and Kronos Quartet provides an instrumental version of the Blind Willie Johnson song that gives this compilation its name. Perhaps the standout cover is Antony and Bryce Dessner's take on the obscure Bob Dylan song "I Was Young When I Left Home." Foregoing the radical and bombastic approach that has been the ruin of countless Dylan covers, Antony's vocals are similar in style to Dylan's, and Dessner's guitar arrangement also remains faithful to the original. Dylan's bleak song resonates because of its simplicity; both Antony and Dessner seem to recognize this and avoid bludgeoning the song with extraneous clutter.

Dark Was the Night isn't perfect - with over 30 songs, how could it be? - but it does offer a remarkable snapshot of today's indie music scene and its various styles. Though notables such as Okkervil River and Animal Collective are absent, it's hard to squabble with the overall results. For those unfamiliar with modern indie music, it's a good starting point. And for those psychotically dedicated indie musos among us, it's an essential purchase.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

M. Ward: Hold Time

M. Ward could probably sing the contents of an old Vladivostok telephone directory and make it sound good. On his previous Merge albums such as The Transfiguration of Vincent, Transistor Radio and Post-War, Ward explored a variety of musical styles and themes and carved out a niche as one of indie's more experimental and reliable artists. His songs are somehow both immediately accessible and hard to place; disparate elements, arrangements and production techniques are often melded together to create something that sounds both rooted in music tradition and singularly unique. With a sometimes-gravelly voice that frequently never gets much above a too-cool whisper - the label's characterization of Ward's voice as being "like drizzled honey" is a cute phrase but doesn't say much - Ward will likely remain just out of reach of mainstream recognition. Yet for those in the know, his songs are highly original and won't be mistaken for that of any other artist.

Hold Time adheres to the same general pattern mapped out on those previous releases from Merge, with a handful of new tunes sprinkled in with a few cover songs and at least one instrumental. As on those previous albums, the production is also quite similar: Ward's vocals are hazy and mostly subdued, the songs feature pleasant guitar and piano work amid a whole army of studio flourishes, and the lyrics read like a catalog of 20th century musical motifs. Yet despite these similarities, or perhaps because of them, the album is Ward's least interesting and engaging in quite some time. Though it's not exactly a case of déjà vu (and a new album from the musician is always welcome) there's not a whole lot here that really distinguishes Hold Time from Ward's three previous efforts.

This isn't to say the album is bad or a throwaway; certainly, a number of solid tracks are included. Ward's guitar picking talents are frequently on display, especially on songs like opener "For Beginners," "Jailbird" and "Stars of Leo." "Never Had Nobody Like You" and "To Save Me" roll along with a stomping rhythm and rolling piano that offer a nice change of pace from the album's mostly reserved and restrained tone. Ward also dramatically reworks a couple cover songs. "Rave On" is re-imagined as a jangly guitar version that slows down the harmonies of the original, while "Oh Lonesome Me" features Lucinda Williams and a stark guitar melody played somewhere between a country blues and a dirge. Though Williams' vocals are occasionally overwrought - with a tortured and exaggerated delivery, she sometimes she sounds like a caricature of herself - the song is perhaps the album's standout moment.

Still, there's a sameness and familiarity to Hold Time that bogs it down; everything from the production techniques (including Ward's vocal treatment) to the musical arrangements are just too reminiscent of Ward's previous albums. Though this release offers a good collection of songs, it lacks the narrative arch of Vincent and the thematic cohesion of Transistor Radio. Although it's not strictly a case of the musician spinning his wheels or stalling for time, the album doesn't find Ward straying far from his comfort zone. It's a reliable, steady album, and in this case that's mostly a drawback.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Revisit: Elvis Costello and the Attractions - Brutal Youth

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Let's get the obvious out of the way first: there are some irredeemable duds on Brutal Youth. Indeed, several songs are horrifically awful and have rightly earned their place with anything from Goodbye Cruel World and Punch the Clock as among the worst of Elvis Costello's career. "Clown Strike" wanders in no particular direction and is just downright bizarre, "Still Too Soon To Know" is among the sappiest songs Costello has recorded this side of jazz groaner North, and "My Science Fiction Twin"...well, the less said about it the better.

That self-editing would have improved Brutal Youth really isn't debatable; many contemporary reviews of the album rightly zeroed in on these excesses. Robert Christgau, never at a loss for snide words, dismissed the album as "fussy as Streisand, ugly as sin, touched with grace," All Music Guide said that it "lacks guts, no matter how smugly secure it is in its tempered 'experimentation,' and Rolling Stone...ah shit, like today, no one really cared what Rolling Stone said in 1994. Still, nearly 15 years after its original release date the album has aged far better than what those initial reviews would have suggested. It very often sports all the trademarks of Costello's best work: caustic and biting lyrics, insistent arrangements of guitars/drums/keyboards and a few well-placed pokes to the eye of various hapless targets.

Brutal Youth marked the first Elvis Costello and the Attractions album since Blood and Chocolate, though calling it that is a stretch: Nick Lowe played bass on more songs than Bruce Thomas. That the bassist, who landed on Costello's shit list when he violated an apparent code of omerta when his agonizingly dull and monotonous book The Big Wheel was published, contributed his talents to only a handful of songs was often missed in contemporary reviews. Predictably enough, Warner Bros. - always on the cutting edge of inventive marketing - hyped the album as the triumphant return of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Whether this approach helped or hindered the album's reception is debatable.

The album is roughly split between up-tempo songs that mostly adhere to the Attractions playbook and slower tunes that emphasize melody and sparse instrumentation over that band's carnival racket; Costello's somewhat-wussy balladeer side would eventually be more fully realized on next album All This Useless Beauty. Like many other Costello albums, a parade of hypocrites, shysters, liars, cheaters, fools, criminals, shady men and slutty women makes up the cast of these songs. Several songs focus on domestic matters: humorous opening track "Pony Street" finds a daughter "reading Das Kapital" and watching videos of her cross-dressing father while trying to curb her mother's increasingly bizarre behavior, "You Tripped At Every Step" promises an unseemly marital squabble, and "Rocking Horse Road" evokes suburban boredom and regret, with its protagonist looking backwards at least one relationship he badly botched. Closing track "Favourite Hour" is perhaps the album's standout moment. Described by Costello as being about "the terrible anticipation of a dread event" in the liner notes to the Rhino reissue version, it features him playing the piano and contains one of the musician's best and most understated melodies.

Other songs drip with the venom, spite and disgust that Costello is best known for, even though this depiction is by now largely inaccurate. We can all thank a questionable dalliance with Burt Bacharach for that. "All the Rage" includes a wonderful rolling piano and boasts a litany of insults, especially in the terse request to "spare me the drone of your advice." "Just About Glad" sounds like a harder-edged companion piece to this song, with Costello taunting the song's subject with a snotty question of "Is that a tear in your eye?" Similar verbal jabs are thrown at the woman "discovered wearing last night's dress" in "Sulky Girl," which contains a tight arrangement and some of Pete Thomas' best drumming on the record. There's no concern or sympathy to be found here; with her dyed hair and phony name, she's primarily shown as an object of derision. Other songs are more sordid. "13 Steps Lead Down" is rather ragged and mines the familiar theme of temptation - in this case the dual vices of sex and alcohol - that appears throughout Costello's catalog. With their procession of drunkards and delinquents, killers and phony alibis, a palpable sense of disgust and anger runs through the frenetic "20% Amnesia" and "Kinder Murder."

Like most artists who have received a significant amount of critical plaudits and pans over the course of a lengthy career, Elvis Costello's later work is frequently judged against his classic early albums like My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Get Happy!. Still, such an approach sells Brutal Youth far short. While it doesn't stack up to those early albums, it has aged very well and incorporates the best elements of Costello's music - an uneasy balance between harmony and abrasiveness, lyrics that stick like knives, and a sense of humor that can be equally cruel and comforting.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Modern Skirts: All Of Us In Our Night

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The sophomore release from Athens, Georgia band Modern Skirts, All Of Us In Our Night is a solid but occasionally frustrating album. At its best, it's catchy and melodic as hell and shows all the hallmarks of a band willing to experiment in finding its style. Coupled with incisive and humorous lyrics and a clean production that gives the vocals and instruments plenty of space, it's a nice enough slice of indie pop. Other times it's far dodgier and less interesting; some songs sound like Britpop leftovers that have long since passed their expiration date.

This tendency is nothing new for Modern Skirts: its debut album Catalogue of Generous Men suggested the band had been busy studying Blur's back pages. Whether the band worships at the Britpop altar or these similarities are entirely coincidental remains to be seen; certainly the vocal quirks of lead singer Jay Gulley are at times eerily reminiscent of Damon Albarn and would lead anyone to draw such comparisons. Gulley's vocals play a large part in making these similarities apparent, but the songs' musical arrangements act as co-conspirators. Some songs move at a pace and rhythm highly suggestive of bands from across the pond; these wouldn't sound out of place as b-sides to Parklife or Modern Life Is Rubbish. Of course this isn't necessarily a bad thing; a band could do much worse than draw comparisons to Blur. Still, the songs sound too forced and overly crafted.

The songs that move into less derivative territory are the most engaging, and make the album worth either a purchase. The most memorable songs build from a primarily acoustic basis, with an emphasis on guitars, piano and minimal percussion. "Chokehold" features hushed vocals and a subtle guitar line. The vocals in particular are unaffected and untreated like they are on other songs, a refreshing change.. "Soft Petals" sports a similar vocal and musical arrangement, but is more airy and atmospheric, while "Yugo" features nice piano flourishes underneath intricate harmonies and background vocals. Perhaps the album's bleakest and most resigned track, "Mrs." is its finest moment, three minutes of gently strummed guitars and washes of percussion that perfectly compliment the vocals.

All Of Us In Our Night plays like a single album with two separate musical ideas that don't always mesh together. The result of either chance or osmosis, its least interesting songs sound like Britpop color-by-numbers, about 15 years too late. Still, a handful of other songs are undeniably outstanding and suggest that the best is yet to come for Modern Skirts.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Cotton Jones - Paranoid Cocoon

Paranoid Cocoon is one of those rare albums that reminds me of exactly why I like to review new releases. Sure, it's always enjoyable and perversely self-satisfying to rip some off where the scab used to be or to twist the knife a little deeper on a particularly heinous album. But any critic who says he always enjoys throwing darts at truly horrible albums that litter the world is either lying or a complete prick; no critic wants to endlessly punish his ears with such musical garbage. Most of us critics are, at least underneath the cynical and grouchy exteriors we display, hardcore if slightly unbalanced fans who just want to hear great music.

Cotton Jones Basket Ride is the latest vehicle for Maryland-based (and here comes that dreaded term) singer/songwriter Michael Nau, perhaps best known among indie psychotics for his work with Page France. That band would eventually release three albums that earned Nau comparisons to Jeff Tweedy and Conor Oberst (but shit, every quasi-sensitive singer/songwriter is compared to Oberst these days).

Nice company certainly, but such comparisons are woefully inadequate in trying to describe the sheer beauty and depth of Paranoid Cocoon. It's airy and atmospheric without sounding overly precious or dainty, musically textured and complex without being obtuse or inaccessible. It incorporates various genres and styles flawlessly; elements of folk and pop exist comfortably with the album's more experimental tendencies. Keyboards, guitars, strings, occasional horns and subtle percussion interweave to create lush and highly melodic structures; songs like "Up a Tree (Went This Heart I Have)," "By Morning Light," "Gotta Cheer Up" and "Blood Red Sentimental Blues" shuffle and sway with intricately woven arrangements. Both the main and background vocals float above the instruments. With a slight echo and hazy distance applied, Nau's voice occasionally sounds a bit like a slightly deeper version of M. Ward, though the vocal approach taken often differs from song to song. Though at times the music is reminiscent of Spiritualized in their more pensive and restrained moments, the album's overall sound is highly unique and equally hard to neatly define.

In keeping with the album's dreamlike quality, the lyrics are almost always impressionistic, vague and surreal. Though it's tempting to apply armchair psychology to the songs and interpret them in such terms, especially given the album's title, only a fool would claim to fully understand the lyrics. A variety of themes are suggested; several songs are sung from the point of view of a solitary figure, sometimes stranded in the rain and seemingly lost and lonely in an indifferent world. Specific phrases and images (especially pastoral ones) are repeated and recur throughout the album, usually accompanied with a heavy dose of melancholy and bleak humor. Certainly a sense of mental conflict and anguish is frequently implied, especially in "Up a Tree (Went This Heart I Have)," its companion song "Gone the Bells," "Cotton and Velvet" ("They got me talking to the bluebirds/ Honey honey where have I gone"), and "By Morning Light," where Nau deadpans: "I was crying just to see a tear/ Because I realized I hadn't cried all year/ It's getting better now."

Other songs explore themes of restlessness and movement. The ubiquitous train is mentioned often; it's used in closing song "I Am the Changer" before the narrator offers an ambiguous sentiment: "Everything has turned around/ Been waiting for a little change/ And when it finally came/ I just waited for another."

Paranoid Cocoon is a quietly insistent album that doesn't need screams, shouts and jagged guitars to make its presence felt. Its arrangements and vocals are atmospheric without being overproduced or cluttered, while its lyrics offer glimpses into their meaning without being incomprehensible. Music fans looking for an album that defies easy categorization would be well served to start here.

by Eric Whelchel

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Revisit: Godspeed You Black Emperor - f#a#∞

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor's f#a#∞ still stands as one of the most foreboding and oppressively dark albums in indiedom. Taking the end of the world and the inevitable apocalyptic well of misery that follows as its primary themes, the album is essentially a modern symphony with several movements within each song. Usually classified as one of the best examples of post-rock (a bullshit catch-all term that means everything and yet absolutely nothing), it blends elements of classical music, avant-garde, pun, and prog rock (the few elements of prog rock that don't completely suck).

GYBE is often portrayed as a darkly mysterious or sinister Canadian musical collective; the fact that in 2003 the band was suspected of being terrorists and were subsequently questioned by the FBI after stopping at a gas station in beautiful Ardmore, Oklahoma most likely didn't help. While GYBE hasn't embraced or encouraged this characterization, it hasn't necessarily challenged it either: their albums offer scant information about or images of the band's members, the band rarely gives interviews, and its overall style is certainly not cheery or easily accessible. While this depiction has probably consigned the band to a cult following - which, given their disdain for mainstream music and corporate rock, the band likely doesn't mind - it has also allowed GYBE to create albums without the dual burdens of undue attention and expectations from either fans or critics.

Though the band's entire discography is worth hearing, f#a#∞ remains their most evocative and representative effort, with Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven running a close second. Originally released on vinyl in 1997 and later remastered and updated for the digital world in 1998, the album was recorded over a three-year period and features no fewer than nine band members playing instruments including guitars, bass, strings, keyboards, drums and various pieces of percussion. Its three songs - "The Dead Flag Blues," "East Hastings," and "Providence" - are all lengthy, mostly instrumental pieces that are alternately depressing, comforting and terrifying. Stark and haunting, the album isn't necessarily easy listening; though it requires careful attention, it reveals more of its strange beauty with each subsequent listen.

Opening song "The Dead Flag Blues" is the album's standout and most startling track; it sets both the tone and mood for the movements that follow. Opening with a recurring drone and a man's deep voice that paints a scene of complete and utter ruin, it's a jarring wake up call for unsuspecting listeners:

The car's on fire and there's no driver at the wheel
And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides
And a dark wind blows
The government is corrupt
And we're on so many drugs
With the radio on and the curtains drawn
We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
And the machine is bleeding to death

The tension is increased as plaintive violin strings are next heard (if this doesn't move you, you're truly a heartless bastard), as the narrator backtracks to describe exactly what happened:

It went like this:
The buildings tumbled in on themselves
Mothers clutching babies picked through the rubble
And pulled out their hair
The skyline was beautiful on fire
All twisted metal stretching upwards
Everything washed in a thin orange haze

The song's movements serve as separate parts of one lengthy end of days lament. Each movement features various mixes of strings, guitars and percussion, along with varying shifts in mood and pace, though these changes are subtle and always short-lived. The song remains undeniably bleak, its various images (crumbled buildings, a horribly wrecked locomotive, dead bodies in the sewers) used to create a parallel with mankind's last days.

The final two tracks showcase GYBE's ability to lull the listener in with quiet melodies, only to then bludgeon that listener with insistent, and immediately disorienting, arrangements. The second movement of "East Hastings" spends its few minutes offering little more than electric guitar strums and random background noises, only to eventually build to a crescendo of drums, percussion, and strings, before again rolling back quietly. Likewise, several movements in "Providence" alternate between sections of gentle violins and sections that sound like pure musical doom and hopelessness, only to recede again to something deceptively soothing.

One of those rare albums that defy easy categorization, f#a#∞ takes a theme that has been explored throughout the centuries - the end of the world - and addresses it in orchestral terms. Its songs develop deliberately, alternating between controlled and melodic isolated instruments and the full force wrought by a nine-member band. Equal parts moving and disturbing, f#a#∞ is somehow both comforting and unsettling; if the apocalypse sounds anything like this, at least we'll go out with some great tunes.

by Eric Whelchel