Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Album: Why There Are Mountains
Sister's Den, 2009
Rating: ******* (7/10)
Earlier this year, the name Cymbals Eat Guitars suddenly began appearing in unlikely places, thanks largely to a slot on Pitchfork's "Best New Music" list. I was pretty surprised, given that when I'd first heard of the band, quite a while ago, I'd stumbled upon them entirely by accident on MySpace and had thought of them a unnotable local act, one I would have forgotten entirely if their rather unusual/annoying name hadn't stuck in my head.
Of course, when this album surfaced this spring, I was confused and surprised. And since Pitchfork said it was good, my instinct was to hate it. But I thought I'd give it a chance and review it fairly upon its rerelease. (It was self-released in January and released again on a proper label this week.) And that's what I'm doing now.
But I've struggled with what to say about this album. I'd like to simultaneously give it a score of 5/10 and 9/10 (so 7/10 is the best compromise). It's bursting with creative energy and some great moments. On the other hand, it's green from end to end. Even the album cover seems amateur and rushed.
Mountains starts off sounding pretty much like a slightly "off" copy of Modest Mouse, with a series of sudden bursts of yelling and noise. Modest Mouse remains the best reference point throughout - probably because Joseph D'Agostino's slightly-too-quirky, slightly-too-young voice is a convincing impression of MM's Isaac Brock. Obviously, I don't mean that as a compliment, but it's not the worst thing either.
As the album wears on, it sounds increasingly like a mash-up of well-selected and well-executed highlights of indie rock/pop's last fifteen years. From the Strokes-esque slick melody and guitar crunch of "Some Trees" to the lush indie pop of "Indiana," CEG cover a lot of ground and master each style with proficient musicianship and strong writing.
Unfortunately, that strong writing only exists on the smallest scale, section to section. Each longwinded track leads nowhere in particular, and the album as a whole is far more confusing that satisfying. You could cut each section out of each song and rearrange them in almost any combination for the same effect. An album should be more than just a collection of good ideas; the whole should be more than the sum of its parts. And this isn't.
There are also quite a few bad ideas thrown in, and while these are outnumbered, they will further frustrate the listener. There are way too many horn parts on the album and as in the subdued "Share," they often just don't fit. The lyrics (where I can hear them) are similarly contrived and overwrought.
What all of this boils down to is that nothing quite comes together - phrases don't form songs or songs an album, words don't quite meld with music, instruments don't lock in sonically with others, beats don't match melodies, hooks and noise don't reveal a larger vision. Everything begs the question "what's the point?"
CEG sound like a band with great promise, but one who have barely begun to iron out their identity. From moment to moment, they sound a lot like a lot of different bands, but never really sound like themselves. The band is clearly experimenting and at the same time holding something back. Mountains gives us every reason to believe this could be a great band in the making. But whether they can complete that process after being shoved into the spotlight a such a tender age remains to be seen. Let's hope so.