Believer or Not
Michael Nau's Catchy, Fetching Indie Pop Plumbs The Faithful And Faithless
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It's a late October evening, and a subdued Michael Nau is en route to Wheaton, Ill., and barely talking about his band as ambient highway noise and band mate Whitney McGraw's chatter commingle pleasantly in the background. Once there, Page France--the two-years-and-change group of multi-instrumentalist pals that Cumberland native Nau leads--plays the first of 40 shows with Michigan's postrocking, freak-folking Anathallo. In addition to this tour, primary lyricist/singer/songwriter Nau has a good deal to be excited about. Page France recently traded up from Baltimore-based indie Fall Records to national player Suicide Squeeze and is in the process of recording its third album, and first for its new label, tentatively titled Page France and the Family Telephone.
And yet Nau is anything but exhilarated, loquacious, or boastful. He is an unfailingly polite young man whose answers to questions are carefully mulled and, when finally voiced, short and matter-of-fact. What's the Page France recording process like? "Writing and recording kind of blur into one." What are the band members' ages? "We're all in our early- to mid-20s." Why the move to Suicide Squeeze? "It was the thing we felt we needed to do to move forward, to reach the next level--stuff like making it easier to find our records in stores."
Prodding for elaboration doesn't yield much more. Given his firm-but-kindly, CIA spokesperson-style facts dispensation and his insistence that the unceasing religious imagery and allusions coursing through every single Page France song aren't actually rock proselytizing, you might infer that Nau is, in fact, a sort of indie-rock spy on a secret mission from God.
Page France coalesced--albeit informally--in the spring of 2004, when longtime friends Jasen Reeder, Clinton Jones, Bryan Martin, McGraw, and Nau began to toy with and flesh out Nau's songs. The quintet's inaugural batch of homemade, self-recorded Sunday School cupcakes was issued by Fall Records later that year as Come, I'm A Lion! Fall Records owner Chris Fredricks admits that he wasn't immediately sold on the band, but came around quickly. "I got the demo in the summer of 2004," he remembers. "I think that was the best time to hear it. I listened to it on and off for about a week before I decided it was great, the same way I came to like a lot of my favorite bands. It took a while to get into it, but when I did I was slightly obsessed."
There's something to Fredricks' slow-burn assessment of the band's charms. Lion! and Hello, Dear Wind--its better-selling, better-promoted 2006 follow-up--initially come across as too gentle, too drowsily traditional, and too soft-pedal pious to be trusted. Nestled within Page France's languid sound is Ben Folds' earnestness and a melodic sensibility reminiscent of early Neutral Milk Hotel, sans the attendant feedback, with hints of old Sesame Street vinyl strewn throughout the mix. Choruses are often undisciplined group efforts, handclap breaks erupt at random, and a cornucopia of instruments--electric and acoustic guitars, tambourines, xylophones, bass, drums, assorted percussive elements, glockenspiels, organs, kazoos, and so on--are sewn so unobtrusively into the sonic tapestry that it's easy to overlook the artistry in their arrangement.
And while McGraw's shaky coos buttress Nau's aspirational, role-playing lyrics, band members otherwise refrain from tying themselves to traditional performance roles because--as with Tortoise or any number of Elephant 6-related ventures--to map out what each member contributes to every song would require the drawing up of "a very cumbersome list," Nau laughs. "And by the time we finish a record, no one really remembers who played what, anyway."
Then there are Nau's lyrics, which treat religion, prayer, Jesus Christ, heaven, and all things biblical as empirical, assumed givens rather than intangible mysteries. This willingness to rock from the pulpit is nothing new in indie rock; from Pedro the Lion to Half-Handed Cloud to the Danielson Family to Sufjan Stevens to Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice, countless non-household names have invoked scripture on their records. Nau's innovation is to adopt different personae--believers, nonbelievers, Jesus, God, and so on--and affix their confusions and declarations of faith to tunes so insidious that even an avowed atheist could be conned into humming along with him.
When, say, the chorus of Lion!'s "Ribs" strides triumphantly over loping organ and dewy guitars--"You were made out of my ribs, we share a heart, we share the stars/ I'll wrap you tight around my wrist to keep you pumping through my arms"--the sumptuous and curious entwining of the divine and the romantically narcotic is fascinating and affecting.
Later in the album, Nau-as-narrator comforts a girlfriend whose home life is unraveling on the autumnal "Ceiling": "Your mother's voice was bleeding through the ceiling/ As we rolled around along the kitchen floor/ We could see your father in the backyard, kneeling/ Funny, mother doesn't kneel much anymore." More playfully sweet and less despairing is Hello, Dear Wind, home to the likes of jaunty, in-the-round jingle-jangle of "Elephant," the wispy, plaintive "Feather" ("I'm as heavy as a feather, hallelujah"), and the chummy "Glue" ("Praise to you/ For giving praise to me"). Nau claims Page France and the Family Telephone, due early next year, won't be much different than what came before; the band is road-testing the material on this tour.
The more you listen--to both Page France's records and Nau over the phone--the more it becomes apparent that where Nau truly communicates is in his songwriting, not the interviews deemed necessary to publicize his craft. Nau says he wasn't reared in any branch of the Christian church; he absorbed the devotional mentality of his environment. "A lot of that stuff has to do with my upbringing," Nau explains, not entirely convincingly, about his childhood in the hinterlands of Western Maryland. "I grew up in a very rural area. It's not a big statement, it's just what I'm used to."