Tuesday 11 December 2007

Lo-fi Intellipunk Jigs from Sunset Rubdown (Random Spirit Lover review)

[Review originally written for MOG]

Wit in music. Not in lyrics, which is easy enough – but in the way one chord leads to another, or a melody appears, or pauses are used. It's a rare phenomenon: one found in the work of classical composers such as Handel and Haydn, say. A (rather more modern) witty album, in my opinion, is Weezer's Pinkerton (leagues better than anything else by the band) – and Sunset Rubdown's Random Spirit Lover reminds me, in some ways, of that record.

To start off by comparing Sunset Rubdown to Weezer is (to put it mildly) potentially misleading. These two bands are not coming from the same place. But the ebullient, inventive playfulness – coupled with musical intelligence tempered with irreverence – is common. And, despite the many differences between the bands, there is also a certain similarity in sound between Random Spirit Lover and Pinkerton (which, if you don't know it, is quite, quite different from Weezer's more recent, heavily produced releases). A brittle, unproduced, spindly quality.

Defining Sunset Rubdown's musical wit isn't necessarily easy. Much of the time, it's to do with juxtapositions and an almost slapdash approach to traditional musical devices. Keys change with abandon (just as they do, brilliantly, in Weezer's 'Across the Sea'), and, at times, the music puts me in mind of an excitable school music class, all of whom have unplugged their keyboards while practising (and messing around with) their scales and arpeggios. Which, of course, would actually sound awful. But here, it doesn't: Random Spirit Lover isn't ever cacophanous. There's even a certain strange, deliberate cheesiness to it all, with its retro synth sounds and scale-based melodies. Which, again, might sound derogative – but is in fact laudatory.

Before I allow the cement to dry around my Weezer comparison, I should note that Sunset Rubdown's music is far more experimental and eclectic. On the latter quality, indeed, few artists or bands successfully combine aspects of everything from troubadour-esque, quasi-Medieval balladry, through Music Hall, to 80s synth-pop. This outstanding ability to bring together disparate musical elements sets the band alongside artists such as Joanna Newsom –different though their respective 'sounds' and influences may be. There's a baseline of irreverence and deliberate messiness, backed up by strong musicianship, that is reminiscent of Dresden Dolls – and a marriage between traditional rock instrumentation and the unashamedly synthetic that makes the band sound, at times, ever so slightly like Grandaddy (albeit Grandaddy on speed).

'The Mending of the Gown' – hugely energetic, idiosyncratic, inventive – is one of the best opening tracks I've heard. As throughout the album, melodic instruments (guitar or synth leads) feature prominently. Set-piece solos are rare, with these intricate, rather fragile melodic lines instead being woven into the texture of the whole song, often cleverly offsetting the vocals. Lead instruments, then, are integral, not gratuitous.

Elsewhere, there is further proof of adventurous eclecticism: 'Up on Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days' might be best described as a lo-fi-electro-intellipunk jig, with its vaguely courtly feel even (appropriately, given the lyrical content). 'For the Pier (and dead shimmering)', meanwhile, is a kind of jerky, arpeggiator-laced take on Roger & Hammerstein ('When You Walk Through a Storm'). 'The Courtesan Has Sung' pairs sparsely-set vocal imitation (a kind of 'round') with martial rhythms – and then, when the rest of the instruments enter halfway through, there is a fantastic effect of sudden 'grounding' – new and unexpected life is added to the melodies. An entirely different vocal texture – male and female vocals, doubled an octave apart and blended into a curiously androgynous hybrid – is explored in 'Colt Stands Up, Grows Horns'. (The band Mew does something similar, at times.) Then, the song blossoms into a dark, retro delayed-synth interlude – vaguely prog-rockish, but with far better chord changes. The result is brilliantly atmospheric, like instrumental music to a lo-fi indie science fiction movie.

Lyrics are often abstract, literary and somewhat opaque. But, when they need to be, they are clear, powerful – and brilliant:
But the pattern of flight is chaotic and blind but it's right
Because chaos is yours and it's mine;
And chaos is luck, and like love, and love blind.
And – just to show that the band's wit isn't limited to the music alone – note the self-referential touch of the device called Verfremdungseffekt (or, more prosaically, according to wikipedia, 'alienation effect') – so beloved of absurdist theatre:
And explosions make debris and catching it kind of suits you well it doesn’t suit me
She said, "My sails are flapping in the wind."
I said, "Can I use that in a song?"
She said, "I mean the end begins."
I said, "I know. Can I use that too?"
Listening to Random Spirit Lover, it is sometimes easy, in fact, to forget that these are songs - so well-considered and cleverly paced is the album. Tracks merge into one-another so that, often, inter-song transitions are barely noticeable – despite drawing on such disparate influences and sources, and vary so considerably in almost any musical sense. Impressively, dramatic and attention-holding variations in tempo, rhythm, key and arrangement are nevertheless bound seamlessly into a balanced, unified whole.

Seldom, I think, have I come across an album that successfully – entirely convincingly – covers so much musical ground, yet loses none of its focus and integrity. Excellent, and – I predict –enduringly interesting and rewarding.

Related articles