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They Clean Up Real Good

Three New Releases Challenge The Limits Of Inaccessible Music--With Pop

Donald Ely

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 10/17/2007

Yellow Swans, Mouthus and Bad Girls

The Bank, Oct. 17

The Year of Our Lord 2007 has been rife with concessions across the music-universe board: Arcade Fire's dramatic excesses streamlined; Xasthur's doom metal reduced in evil density; Tender Forever escaping the lo-lo-fi electro-pop ghetto to forge a more substantial sound; the Magik Markers notably less noxious; Wilco surrendering to long-dormant dad-rock impulses; Kanye West preaching the pop-sampling gospel; Tegan and Sara letting their new-wave flag flap harder than ever; Lou Reed putting out a low-key drone record--of all things--and finally this month, the taming of Portland, Ore., psych-noisenaut Yellow Swans, NYC wavelength-grinder Sightings, and Chicago-siblings-turned-yammering-New Yorkers, the Fiery Furnaces. None of the tunes on any of the new discs by the latter three is likely to be harnessed for the hawking of iPods, midlife crisis autos, or poignant Zach Braff moment-of-clarity voice-overs on Scrubs; the present age's abundant ironies can only take us so far, after all. Yet--in keeping with this year's subtrend--they're easier on the ears than what came before, as each sub-mainstream act reins in its respective quirks and proclivities to varying degrees.

The appeal of pop-based music generally--from the B-52's to the Ramones to Mariah Carey to, say, Missy Elliott--lies largely in its accessibility, its ability to capture and hold one's attention right away. Pop's function is not necessarily to confound. To dig Sightings, on the other hand, is to be able to embrace a puzzling, sinus-clearingly crude aesthetic right off the bat and to accept that making sense of it probably isn't in the cards.

The trio's songs are ghastly and graphic, like atomic-bomb victims whose bones and flesh have been fused together: Jonathan Lockie's drum-kit whumps, Mark Morgan's nails-on-chalkboard guitars and asylum banter grind, and Richard Hoffman's bass strikes almost inseparably intertwined in gruesome, screeching mélanges hewn to rough, relentless rhythms. On previous astringent exercises--Sightings, Michigan Haters, Absolutes, and End Times--this group sounded like the end of the world, three horsemen staging their own aural apocalypse. On 2004's Samara Lubelski-produced Arrived in Gold, Sightings downshifted their scrape 'n' sear into something decidedly more minimalist. Through the Panama (Load)--which the band produced alongside steroid-pop noise-dude/motivational speaker Andrew W.K.--tries to split the difference between maniacal and subtle, becoming ugly, vaguely melodic, and palatable all at once.

The gambit more than pays off. On "A Rest," the respective sonic elements are uncharacteristically isolated but arranged in such a seasick way that the track retains a bracing bounce; menacing guitar mange, emaciated drum patter, and tail-chasing bass heaves politely jockey for position, while space is set aside for Morgan to cleanly chant-enunciate stuff like "Two watchdogs watching cable/ Watching me for a rest" and "No team of fast trotters/ Not one single breath." A cover of the Walker Brothers' 1978 single "The Electrician" successfully commingles dread and songcraft, the band staying true to the original while remaining true to itself. The terrain-shifting lurch of "Perforated" contains that jerky musicianship, abating at key points for vocal injections. Even Panama's less user-friendly fare--like the typewriters-on-speed, staple-machine-gunning of "This Most Real of Hells" and the deranged, looping title track--have had their rough edges sanded down somewhat. The overall result is simultaneously face-melting and crudely elegant--the first Sightings album one could plausibly throw on the Magnavox at a backyard barbeque without triggering a mass exodus.

Sightings' Load Records compatriots Yellow Swans, endlessly collaborative, enterprising--check the catalog of Collective Jyrk, their label--and prolific, want to be a Wolf Eyes for noise connoisseurs who don't consider "cryptic" a watchword or obsess over Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. At All Ends stands roughly as the Yellow Swans' kajillionth release, its third studio album, and its first-ever sonic sculpture display; the album's like a laboratory shelf of formaldehyde jars containing twisting, fluorescent tissue cultures. Paradoxically, the duo has boiled its sound down from hectic, claustrophobic fireworks (Bring the Neon War Home, live sets, etc.) and orchestral, sweeping arrangements (Psychic Secession) to the bare essentials--Gabriel Mindel Saloman's commanding guitar leads and Pete Swanson's flattened vocals bathing in a frothy vat of reverb, distortion, and the electronic dust devils both men generate--only to crank the volume on what's left over.

At All Ends thus exudes a sometimes blistering, sometimes gaping solemnity that is often in danger of going unnoticed altogether. Without drums, beats, or percussion of any kind, the album feels suspended in a block of amber. On the monolithic title track, Saloman's ax inhales, exhales, and rasps out a relaxed, repeating melodic shrug that ambitiously--through the slowly gathering mushroom cloud of noise--evokes both hymnal staple "Amazing Grace" and Jimi Hendrix's legendary cover of "The Star-Spangled Banner." "Mass Mirage" floats Swanson's wordless arias over a living whiteout wall of feedback; "Our Oases" mimics Earth's amp-overload chord-strain. "Stretch the Sands" strikes Ends' sole bum note: Promising at first, it uncoils into a hypnotic, miles-deep drone exercise that becomes increasingly overwhelming, tedious, and cluttered. Overall, though, the Yellow Swans impressively continue to pursue their creative muse--even if it's led them, with Ends, into a slightly conservative cul-de-sac.

The Fiery Furnaces, simply by pursuing a topsy-turvy prog-pop agenda, are still much more digestible to hipsters, post-undergraduates, and NPR listeners alike than the Yellow Swans, Sightings, or any noise band could ever hope to be. Widow City (Thrill Jockey) represents the best hope the duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger have of hitting the big time. What's surprising is how little of their individuality is sacrificed to that end.

The Furnaces continue to operate like a grown-up, Americanized, indie-rock version of Charlie and Lola--big bro scaring up willfully obtuse rock throw-downs, li'l sis chipping in daft make-believe rejoinders that twist the tongue and hopscotch through history class. There are, as usual, needlessly reiterative songs that never seem to end, a dump truck full of whimsy, and a number of satellite story lines orbiting about a central one--wife resents and maybe kills husband, sweats a grand jury trial, has hot affairs with lesbian lover and ex-boyfriend--that aren't necessarily key to enjoying the record. What isn't present: persistent, pretentious songwriting overkill (Blueberry Boat), infuriating brown-acid damage (Bitter Tea), and grandma-enabling, memory-lane tripping (Rehearsing My Choir) that the pair have succumbed to since busting out with their 2003 landmark debut, Gallowsbird's Bark. It's as if, suddenly, they're sick and tired of being evasive and difficult for the sake of being evasive and difficult.

While mellotrons get a thorough workout all over City, crunchy, imposing guitars score serious face time as well, lending these Friedberger misadventures a newfound gravity: butching up the starry-eyed "Clear Signal From Cairo"; providing textural, intermittent beef for perky, jaunty bitchfest "Navy Nurse"; slamming the happily deceptive "Automatic Husband" home in grungy, shattering blitzkriegs. There are more than a handful of tunes that qualify as outright-if-skewed pop, from comely reggae fantasia "My Egyptian Grammar" to barroom-jukebox bluesy/slide-guitar sleazy "Restorative Beer" to sassy, thundering "Ex-Guru," which boasts the best, bravest in-denial chorus in recent memory: "She means nothing to me now/ I tell myself that every day."

What it all comes down to is this: a troika of this middle-aged decade's most exciting and challenging groups making conscious stabs at coherence. In an ever more complicated, information- and choice-stuffed world, it's easy to interpret their moves as olive branches rather than artistic progression. But it's just as likely that they're doing what they feel they need to survive in a music marketplace where a new buzz-band is born every 20 mouse clicks.

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