Sunday, March 7, 2010

Radio, Radio

Bear in a Box [EP]
FM Campers

The FM Campers are offering their first EP for free. All bands should do this. Your first concern as a young band should be making as many people aware of your existence as possible. Once you make a record, you should try and get rid of every copy you print as soon as possible. Giving them away really speeds this process, and hurries you on to making a second record, which is almost always more rewarding. As a rule EP's seem to make a better first impression than full-lengths -- they're just the right length for three or four explorations of your basic sound accompanied by one or two wacky departures.

Bear in a Box certainly sounds like an early artifact. The drums and guitars are not well-captured. The live drums are very effective and a big part of keeping the music's sense of progression, but as thin as they are in the mix it takes some careful listening to separate out their function. In the heavy final section of "E Turner" the guitars aren't nearly massive enough to meet the Mogwai-like level of sonics the Campers are shooting for. We've (for some time now) arrived at the point where random free-time keyboard hums aren't necessarily original; the cyclo-Mellotron hook that opens "Turner" is straight out of Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." While I appreciate the imaginative melodies at work, and the lyrics where they can be interpreted seem a plus, the vocals are at times annoying. Swooping into a thin falsetto, a more practiced hand at the sort of loudness-mad kitchen sink production that's the style of college radio nowadays could use echo, choice overdubs, and inspired double-tracking to make this weakness a big strength.

Though they make these rookie mistakes and others, there has to be something to the fact that I listened to Bear in a Box three times in a row without getting bored or irritated. The cottage-Eno synths and post-OK Computer anthem rock FM Campers trace are anything but original as of this moment in rock history, but melodies matter most, and those they have. They're not opening up new sonic territory but they make the most of the available explored spaces. With the keyboard melodies beeping in staccato, they can sound like U2 with the keys standing in for the wall of effects-pedal guitars. But on the spare, assembled-from-junk parts "Everyone" they sound like a mascara-smeared emo frontman sitting in (for some reason) with Tom Waits' band -- at least until the 80's synth-rock double-time drums enter. In short they don't let the theatrical tendencies of their vocals stand in the way of their noisy experimental inclinations, or vice versa. It's unusual to hear a new band that's comfortable being obnoxious and ingratiating.

FM Campers play Thursday, March 11 at Red 7 with Megafauna, who set the gold standard in Austin for attractive female singers with scary good guitar chops.

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