Monday, September 21, 2009

Pieces of the Past Caught in Their Throats

The Midnight Organ Fight
Frightened Rabbit
These Four Walls
We Were Promised Jetpacks

It's a great gig being the originators of a scene, the first to play music with a new feel to it in a remote location. Take The Clean. By part undeniable greatness and part historical accident, the late-seventies New Zealand trio has one of the most striking divides ever between musical professionalism/fidelity of original recordings and enduring influence. The Kilgour brothers, still active in their own idiosyncratic fashion after all these many years, were relatively unique in that they absorbed all four Velvet Underground records before beginning to try to imitate them. As a result, their early EP's had both completely dotty and wonderful lo-fi pop accidents like "Tally Ho" and grinding "Sister Ray" jams like "Point That Thing Somewhere Else." Every New Zealand band to follow would end up sounding like lesser imitators, partly because nearly every New Zealand band to follow had a few members of The Clean among their ranks (or failing that debut producer/organ fingerer Martin Philipps) and all of them sounded like they had picked just one Clean song as a starting point.

By this example I can't say I've been observing the Scottish postpunk scene all that closely since the late 90's. Seeing (the deathly boring) Ganger open for Mogwai a couple of times probably wasn't enough of a basis to make such a snap decision, but I figured that if Mogwai wasn't capable of more than two pretty good LP's and then a rapid diminishing of marginal returns, none of the many other bands springing up in their wake needed my attention at all. But what do I know? Postpunk is apparently alive and well north of Hadrian's Wall, and has even launched something called "the Scottish Tri-fecta Tour" which arrives at Austin's Mohawk on Thursday the 24th.

Frightened Rabbit is the nominal headliner and the longest-established of the three, but they're also the least original. The Midnight Organ Fight has interesting songwriting and arrangements, with banjo and violin competing with loud and surging drums, but it's not at all difficult to connect the sound here with many earlier British Isles bands invigorated by U.S. indie and experimental -- late-period Blur, the somewhat forgotten High Llamas, in particular Ireland's The Frames with their combination of post-rock rhythms and production with fiddle and acoustic instruments. "The Twist," with its spooky computer-altered backing vocals, pounding drums, and folk-y string-scraping, deserves to begin a dance craze of some sort. I can't think of a name for it right now.

Younger and more aggressive, with thicker accents still, We Were Promised Jetpacks are certainly the beneficiaries of a scene primed and ready for the next evolution of a sound combining Mogwai volume with the melodic awareness of a much, much earlier group of British bands. While their current tourmates are still struggling with shaping a definitive sound as of their second albums, These Four Walls is full-sounding and totally musically assured. Beginning its first track, "It's Thunder and It's Lightning," with nothing louder than a pumping hi-hat and some orchestra bells for two-thirds of its length shows their self-confidence. "Moving Clocks Run Slow" is another standout, with some absolutely gorgeous bass -- it goes from a disco pulse to an utterly unexpected, outrageously joyful melody-laden Macca-style walking figure to some Peter Hook overdriven lead bass at the end. All these changes in tone and style, and Sean Smith still manages never to break the flow of the piece or abandon the logic of the song. Unexpected American influences abound, in the way the band finds an alternative course away from Mogwai's "louder louds, quieter quiets" approach (shades of the sadly forgotten Juno) or daringly direct leads and melodies (like Rites of Spring's most-definitely-remembered All Through a Life EP). The only real drag on These Four Walls is the epic "Keeping Warm," which ought to be a definitive statement but just sounds like them trying to do all of the different things they are capable of at once, which doesn't sound nearly as cool in practice as in theory.

A recurring lyrical theme in both bands' music is the use of the words "warm" or "warmth" as a particularly Glaswegian shorthand for cultural engagement. That's the question hardcore has faced since its birth: How do you inspire deeply individually-minded people to mass action? Outside of the educated, polyglot Guy Picciotto, few lyricists to emerge from the genre have addressed this in song directly. I couldn't have ever guessed it would become a genuine trend in Scotland of all places.

Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks play Mohawk on Thursday with the Twilight Sad.

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