Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Albums: Friendo - Cold Toads

Cold Toads (Friendo)
Album: Cold Toads
St Ives, 2010
Rating: ******* (7/10)

I wish I knew quite what to make of Friendo's album, but then again, I wouldn't want a Women side-project to be straightforward. And Michael Wallace has delivered.

Cold Toads weaves strange soundscapes using that palate of notes most notably developed by Sonic Youth - strange out-of-key-signature notes used to make chords that are not so much discordant as they are disorienting. The record is full of exploring electric guitar lines winding and grooving and twisting through just enough reverb and distortion. Sometimes the guitar is swirl and at other times it rocks out on thick, gritty chords, but no matter where it leads, the rest of the music follows.

But that doesn't mean the rest of the music should be ignored. The understated vocals lace the album with a sense of mystery and a sense of human connection. Most lines are chanted, but melodically so and with a subtle pop sense. Female vocals pop up now and then too, most notably on "Hailey Oman," where Nic Greedy (I am assuming that's the woman, since the other two members on myspace are listed as "Michael" and "Henry") shouts out her words like punchy slogans in a way that is simply impossible not to compare to Kim Gordon.

But although Sonic Youth is the obvious reference point for Friendo, they aren't pure imitators. Friendo is focused with hands-on mixing that throws in some unexpected sounds (like the hint of electro in track one) and some unexpected noise shifts (like the guitar cutting in and out at the beginning of "Hailey Oman"). The Velvetoid "Young Fellows" flips back and far as though Wallace is standing across the room, then suddenly directly in front of you and then across the room again. Even within this single song, one can spot a myriad of influences. The jerking opening bars of "Young Fellows" seem to nod to the American indie experiments of the early 90's - Slint and co., for example, while the melting sound in the final minutes of the record recall MBV's Isn't Anything.

Cold Toads is an album of remarkable restraint. The entire thing seems hushed, almost muffled. Even when the distortion kicks in, it does so with a weird feeling of distance. The dark, tightly wound "New Sibley" is the album's most aggressive track but the band doesn't need to shove their music in your face to captivate and unsettle, and indeed, the sense that something is being held back is part of what gives the album its nervous edge.

Although Cold Toads is a dark album, it is not intensely so. Some of the melodies are downright foot-tappable and a hint of brightness shows around the edges. "Liners" tumbles through a ringing major key and the guitars in "Oversees" are nothing if not warm. At the same time, however, something is always off and whatever that something is, it's been carefully crafted by the band to never resolve. As the album goes on, it just gets better, while you slowly sink into the band's otherworldly terrain. It may not grab you from note one, but keep listening - I promise you.


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