There’s a fairly active debate in the music writing world about whether writers should cover music because it’s good (rockism) or because it’s popular and people want to read about it (popism). I may have oversimplified…it’s very nearly as complicated as the Albigensian heresy at this point, and just as silly. Though as far as I know, no one has been burned at the stake yet.
But in any case, I am having my own little rockist rebellion today, because I had this record called Dark Smaland, by the Instruments, which was totally excellent. It was so good that I decided that rather than a pathetic little 150 word review that no one would read, it deserved a longer take…PopMatters didn’t agree. They didn’t cut the review, but they didn’t allow it a full-length slot either. Straight to the “short takes” ghetto. So screw them and their trendy little essays on much-hyped albums that blow and no one will care about in six months. Here’s my Instruments review.
Surely one of the year’s best experimental pop records, Dark Småland enlists a long list of familiar names from the mid-1990s Athens, Georgia scene. Heather McIntosh, who has played cello on any number of Elephant 6 albums, is this time at the center of the action, writing, singing, arranging and playing. Her main support comes from Olivia Tremor Control drummer Eric Harris, whose abstract rhythms pace these songs and push them into unusual corners, as well as guitarist Derek Almstead, an Elephant 6 mainstay who has played with Of Montreal, Elf Power, Marshmallow Coast, and a long list of others. Other Athens regulars drop in for a song or two; even the reclusive Jeff Magnum sings a few harmonies.
Still, all that bold-facing would mean nothing if the songs were not so beautiful—and they are. For one thing, they’re arranged invitingly in cycle that flows one to another like a lucid dream that could not go any other way. For another, they have the same natural, wholesome loveliness of trees and seascapes, whether they are capturing the blurry, nocturnal melancholy of deepening twilight, or clarity of sun-drenched forests.
Dark Småland feels, if not conceptual, at least broadly linked together. There’s an arc to this record, a natural progression, so that it opens with the cello-rich, ocean-breezy sweep of “Ode to the Sea”, picks up rhythmic intensity in “Sounds Electric” and the instrumental “Arabesque”, then slows for the deep magic shadows of “Cello Ballad”, and finally dawns gently and hallucinogenically in “Northern Skies”. This latter cut is one of the album’s loveliest, and most redolent of Circulatory System, not surprising perhaps, given that all three principals played on that band’s sole album.
Still, this is no rehash, nor nostalgia trip, but rather a very original venture into cello-rich, visionary pop landscapes. McIntosh might have learned a thing or two about bending pop into psychedelia, or about adding instrumental density without weight to her arrangements from the Elephant 6 clique. But the songs, bright and beautiful, are her own.
“Ode to the Sea”
And here’s the full-length that they ran the same day about an album which, in my humble view, blows:
The Light of a Golden Day, the Arms of the Night
US release date: 20 May 2008
UK release date: 20 May 2008
by Jennifer Kelly
Dance, You Sad Bastard
The Social Registry label has long been known for arty, experimental bands like Gang Gang Dance, Sian Alice, and Growing—challenging, rule-breaking outfits that sometimes fail but even then do so in an arresting, thought-provoking way. It’s an outpost for edgy, dissonant musical bomb-throwing to the point where some reviewers (okay me) will gladly sign up for whatever they’re peddling. Douglas Armour, an LA-based electro songwriter, fits into this aesthetic uncomfortably to say the least. If his whisker-thin pop breaks a rule at all, it’s the rule that Social Registry’s bands should be interesting.
The MySpace, but really don’t bother…