I know that beginning a review with a facile comparison to another band makes me a bad critic, but itís nothing I havenít done before, and it really has to be said: this New Orleans quintet has made the best Pavement album since Wowee Zowee. I just canít get around it. Opener ìRiunite Over Ice (70ís Movie)î starts out sounding like a continuation of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rainís ìHeaven Is a Truck.î Its first minute consists of slack-tuned acoustic guitar, aimless electric guitar soloing, plodding drumming, one-fingered piano, and last but certainly not least, front man J. Marlerís mumbling vocals. The coda of the song is followed by a short snippet of psychedelic jamming, which is a total Brighten the Corners move (see ìShady Lane/J Versus Sî). Marler has Stephen Malkmusí lyrical knack for alternating between evocative imagery that tells a story without resorting to linear narrative and clever nonsense that just sounds good when rolling off the tongue. Marler also possesses Malkmusí cracked, lackadaisical style of singing, although the former singerís voice is much deeper and stentorian, which makes him sound more like David Berman, whose band the Silver Jews boasts Malkmus as an occasional member. Iíve said the word ìMalkmusî three times in the previous two sentences. Do you get the point by now?
Although the Pavement influence is inescapable, the Rotary Downs are
definitely their own band. Lyrically, Marler has a MUCH higher
signal-to-noise ratio than Malkmus, and his flights of fancy are used in service of conceits that everyone can relate to. ìCímon, Take a Hitî urges listeners to take the time to recuperate and learn from the mistakes of life: ìGo slow, youíve got to breathe.î He follows such simple advice with more cerebral commands like ìRemind me to rinse my conscience and rub it up under the sun.î ìHole in the Heart of Bamaî recounts the last moments of a man on death row, paying close attention to the indifference of those around him: ìA final feast with the guards and the priest from home/The governor sleeps and is nowhere near his phone.î The protagonist in ìRunaway Cowî has a hard time adjusting to the absence of his lover: ìFell asleep with the radio on/Iíll wake up when the batteryís gone.î Throughout Long After the Thrill, Marler uses his surreal yet incisive wordplay to tackle topics such as the universality and permanence of grief (ìBleedersî), the wanderings of a homeless unemployed drunk (ìJasperî), hypocritical Christians (ìRev. Percyî), and lonely musicians running from the law (ìStatue of a Drinkerî).
Musically, the band has struck a veritable gold mine by realizing that pedal steel sounds surprisingly good next to alternately tuned electric guitars. On this album, the pedal steel is not just a sporadic ambient accessory (which definitely canít be said for Scott Kannbergís post-Pavement band Preston School of Industry). Itís a crucial component of the songs, and dances with the guitars through gorgeous note clusters, chromatic runs, and ascending/descending riffs. The band also employs cello, Moog, and mellotron at various points on the record, with commendable taste and subtlety. The Rotary Downs also have Pavementís tendency to seriously obfuscate their music every once in a while. ìBleedersî ends on an extremely random note, with Marler counting from twenty-one to twenty-six until the tape abruptly stops. The albumís final song (ìCotton Fieldsî), which also happens to be its catchiest, has the recording fidelity of a low-quality MP3, and the music on the left speaker is a few milliseconds delayed from the music on the right speaker, which creates a sort of slap-back echo effect. Whether this is the result of intentional studio trickery of just plain poor mastering, the effects actually HELP the song instead of hurt it. Youíve got to love a band that can make even their mistakes sound cool.
Hereís the final verdict. Not only have Rotary Downs taken all of
Pavementís best traits (smart lyrics, cracked vocals, dissonant guitars, flighty lyrics, catchy songs) and left behind their worst (lapses into poor musicianship and lazy writing), but theyíve also added enough of their own ingredients to transcend ìtribute bandî status. The result of this amalgamation is an album of lush, tuneful, and weird Americana that will definitely make my Top Ten list this year.