Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Death By Audio, 2009
Rating: ******* (7/10)
Grooms (f.k.a. Muggabears) release their debut LP this week on Death By Audio Records, the label's first seriously promoted release. But despite being a young label, the name Death by Audio caries a lot of weight, arising from the same effects pedal factory, venue, studio and artist collective that gave us A Place to Bury Strangers and Dirty on Purpose. It's also home to two of my most recent most favorite bands, Coin Under Tongue and Sisters. So there's some pedigree.
In any case, Grooms, under their former name, have been around the city a while and have cultivated a lot of local respect. Their sound is noisy, experimental American post punk with some very weird-sounding guitars. For the indie fan, Sonic Youth is by far the easiest and most accurate reference point - the alternate guitar tunings and unusual effects generate a strange, ringing sound, and the band certainly doesn't let tired conventions like, you know, key signatures get in their way. As the guitar wanders through arpeggios, it rarely stays in conventional scales and chords for more than a bar.
Like the key signatures, the band's rhythms and song constructions are organic, drifting from one place to another with few markers. This makes the album a frustrating listen - using songs as units to divide the album seems almost arbitrary, as each section is just a jumping-off point for the next. Without trail markers like choruses and verses, it's hard to digest. Especially since there isn't huge variety between the tracks, it's easy to get lost and difficult to see the band's larger vision.
However, there is a lot to praise as well. Sonically innovative, Rejoicer certainly knows how to rock hard from time to time, but also contains plenty of intellectual appeal. And though Sonic Youth may be the easy comparison, the emotions here are far more raw and less analytical. In other words, the music is more personal. There's a lot of sadness in the poignantly titled Rejoicer.
Tracks like "Acid King of Hell" show hints of Pavement-esque ramshackle pop. Throughout the album, bursts of noise are heavy and careful enough to avoid sounding dated. Near the end, "She-Bears" is built around an eerie siren that recalls creepy songs from the likes of Radiohead far more than anything by Sonic Youth. "The Nights Were Walls (We Climbed Them All)" ends the album at its darkest. With heavily reverbed vocals, minimal guitar and no drum beat at all, the song is a portrait of utter isolation, tangible enough to send a chill down your spine.
On the whole, Rejoicer is an interesting, creative and meaningful effort, but it lacks the mature musician's sense of a larger-scale vision (or at least the ability to communicate that vision). Why this song and no other song? Why this sound and no other sound? Answers to these questions should be apparent in the music, but here, it's not clear. The record is all good but it falls short of its potential. Grooms is easily worth a listen, but are they worth freaking out over? No. Not yet.