Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Tortoise and the Hare

The Chinese Stars, Listen to Your Left Brain, Three One g/Skingraft [3/20/07]

Christened after the "Chinese Star Epidemic" of the early '80s which found legions of grade school kids across America armed with "shrunken" throwing stars, the band vowed to reinvent what they have already invented in their previous bands. -- From the Chinese Stars biography


I'm fascinated by CD art, because it's one of the ways a band presents themselves to the world, along with posters, handbills, and the like. The music may be of greater significance, but that doesn't mean the packaging is irrelevant. So, the first thing I noticed about this release was the unappealing artwork.

The combination of pink and black appeals in a new wave/post-punk sort of a way, but the design is a dud. As a general rule, brains are neither attractive nor compelling--not even when depicted in fuschia. The title may be Listen to Your Left Brain, but I'm sure this Providence quartet could've found a more effective way to illustrate the message (which I heartily endorse, by the way). Alas, the brain in all its moist, rounded folds reminds me of nothing so much as intestines. It's an image I could do without.

As for the music, it isn't bad. On their second record, this Arab on Radar/Six Finger Satellite off-shoot hits the same sweet spot as Vancouver's Hot Hot Heat or Portland's late, great Exploding Hearts. The Chinese Stars are more raw than the former, less pop than the latter, but I bet they put on an equally energetic show.

Paul Vieira tortures his guitar, Craig Kureck (ex-AoR) beats his drums, Rick Ivan Pelletier (ex-SFS) attacks his bass, and Eric Paul (also ex-AoR) invests lines like "Your love is like a cold war" with more urgency than they deserve, but you can't fault a guy for trying. (Pelletier has since left, to be replaced by V. Von Ricci.) Bonus points for the cowbell, the snare, and that weird rumbling, buzzing noise. If only they had put as much effort into their cover art...

A Northern Chorus,
The Millions Too Many,
Sonic Unyon Recording
Company [3/20/07]

We're still wading through that fog of disparity and trying to maintain a clear sense of immediacy. Hopefully, 'The millions too many' points towards minimizing the excesses of this world and bridging the gaps between us.
-- From the A Northern Chorus biography


On The Millions Too Many, their fourth full-length, this Canadian sextet has constructed a rich, multi-layered album. Unlike previous recordings, the songs are shorter, but they're still given room to breathe. There's nothing rushed going on here. Though the vocals are up front, that doesn't detract from the prowess of the playing. Arguably, Peter Hall overenunciates, but his gentle style renders the point moot (Stu Livingstone is also credited with guitar/vocals, but I'm guessing that refers to backing vocals).

Aside from the usual instrumental line-up, ANC includes violin (Erin Aurich) and cello (Alex McMaster), yet I wouldn't describe them as baroque or orchestral. That implies something more precious than what I'm hearing on this record. Not that I can't appreciate a little preciousness from time to time (hello, Camera Obscura!), but ANC sounds more like Game Theory or Arcade Fire than most other indie pop acts with strings. Some of the other artists to which they've been compared include Pink Floyd, Sigur Rós, Death Cab for Cutie, and Explosions in the Sky (the Texas four-piece responsible for the music in Friday Night Lights).

Unlike many musicians, they're also better at evoking a general feeling rather than a specific sound. I don't really know how to categorize ANC as they fall between a number of cracks--alternative rock, alt-country, etc.--but I can say that they conjure up a pastoral mood. Maybe it's because they hail from Golden Horseshoe, Ontario. Maybe it's because they're a laidback lot. Either way, it isn't folk and it isn't rock, but there's this small town thing going on, like the soundtrack to an independent feature about a young woman who lives in the country with a shaggy dog and an old pick-up truck. I can hear ANC playing in the background as she drives into town on a sunny day with the trees vibrating past and the clouds dancing above. It's a nice image.

Endnote: Images from the official Chinese Stars and A Northern Chorus websites. The CS homepage features a more pleasing representation of a brain, mostly because it's more stylized, less realistic. ANC plays Seattle's Crocodile Café with Aereogramme
on 4/13/07. Click here to sample some of their material.

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