Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Such Great Heights

You Can't Take It with You
As Tall As Lions

With Thom Yorke as their Lou Reed and the outer boroughs subbing in for the Bowery, laptop-guitar bands are just the thing in old New York these days. I'm not absorbed enough in the sound to judge how original As Tall As Lions are, but You Can't Take It with You is a varied and full-bodied record with interesting and unexpected musical combinations.

While modern rock anthems like "Circles" and "In Case of Rapture" form the core of their sound, the Long Island quartet sidesteps expectations by continuing to explore new directions as the album matures. The last several songs form the strongest stretch on the CD. "Sleepyhead" is lush but restrained, reminiscent of Lambchop's best work. "The Narrows" dabbles in cool jazz on its way to a welcome 70's Philly soul vibe. "We's Been Waitin'" mixes campy piano with a disturbingly filtered vocal, electric organ, and handclaps -- its bent but sincere approach might well please Mike Patton's fans. "Is This Tomorrow?" nods to hip-hop; "Lost My Mind" is spare and filled with reverb, longing, and suspended chords.

The more conventional tracks aren't as exciting. As Tall As Lions show a willingness to use programmed beats and loops as an integral part of their songwriting process, rather than simply grafting beeps and blips over completed pieces. That approach has its good elements and its bad side. When they just load everything they can do together at once -- whole choirs of backing voices, chugging Arcade Fire guitars, extraneous electronic overdubs -- they could be anybody. They lack the sense of theme and purpose that moved so many Grizzly Bear records. At the other extreme, they're simply not very interesting when they try to make purely electronic, ambient music. "Duermete" builds after a trumpet-embellished intro to a natural conclusion, stops, and then half-heartedly hums for an unnecessary two minutes of its eight-minute length. "Lost My Mind" would end the album on just the right searching, unresolved note, except it crossfades into some more synth humming and then a random coda that sounds like the work of a completely different band. Sometimes too much is just enough.

As Tall As Lions play at Stubb's (indoors) tomorrow night, Wednesday the 28th.

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