July 01, 2004

rhythm of black lines "human hand, animal band"

Rhythm of Black Lines are perennial underdogs of the Austin indie-rock scene. After five years of existence, the quartet remains in a strange commercial purgatory: too talented to fit neatly into the “opening band” ghetto yet not popular enough to be considered a headline act, even in their very own hometown. I cannot say that their position in the scene isn’t partially of their own making. Even with the aggressive immediacy of their live performances on their side, their music is a difficult sell. They play meandering epics that connect the dots between the peaks of the last 30 years of prog-rock, from Yes to 90 Day Men, but rarely provide enough hooks to keep listeners interested along the way. On top of these songs, guitarist Clint Newsom sings like a drunk Jeff Buckley, in a voice that is tremulous enough to suggest a qawwali influence but is more than likely the result of a lack of voice control. As hard as Clint’s wailing can be for some to listen to in its natural state, it surprisingly sounds worse when he tries to tone it down (see the feeble whispers of “My Suzerain,” from their latest album Human Hand, Animal Band).

When they play live, you can tell that they’re more concerned with challenging themselves than entertaining the audience, and while such an approach is arguably commendable, it can occasionally come off more like contempt. I still have a bit of a sour taste in my mouth from watching them curse at a slowly dwindling audience when they headlined at Stubb’s three years ago. While I am happy to see that Rhythm have received enough props outside of Austin to convince the Californian connoisseurs of obnoxious art-punk at Gold Standard Laboratories to release their second full-length, just one listen to Human Hand, Animal Band assured me that Rhythm’s increasing fortune hadn’t resulted in a proportional decrease in solipsism.

If anything, this is the most self-indulgent rock album I’ve heard so far this year. I am certain that the band made the exact kind of record that they wanted to make, and made it a point to take advantage of all of the options that a bigger budget and an expanded lineup presented to them. If this meant that their album ended up sounding like Yes’ Fragile given the Phil Spector treatment, then so be it. Drummer Tim O’Neill even pulls a Rick Wakeman on us by inserting a six-minute solo piano piece in the album’s second half. The problem with this is that although there are brilliant ideas scattered all over the album, the band has no clue how to properly organize them. Just when you think that a song has exhausted all of its ideas and gone through every reasonable permutation, the band adds another riff to pad the running time an extra minute or two. Not only that, but songs that are convoluted enough when played live with guitars, keyboards, and drums sound even MORE so with the addition of horns, strings, and offbeat production tricks.

The band is at its best on “PJS,” which is indexed as a three-part suite on the CD. The first part is slow shoegaze, with weepy strings and sweet keyboards augmenting delay-drenched guitars. Clint sings as if he’s deathly afraid to enunciate, but his marble-mouthed wailing deftly conveys the ominous sentiments of the lyrics: “If we take you for a pacifist, we’ll string you up and call it quits.” The second part and third parts of the suite are little more than double-time vamps on the first part’s original theme. All tolled, the “suite” clocks in at eleven minutes, which would only be two minutes longer than the album’s longest song if it were indexed as one track. Why, then, did the band choose to split it three ways? Probably just because they could.

Let us also examine “Is It In or Is It Out?,” which happens to be the album’s most accessible song. It begins as a sultry slice of ‘80s-style new wave, with keyboardist Omar Chavez making his only appearance at the microphone and Clint doing his best Andy Summers impersonation on the guitar. Chavez’ singing is calm and pitch-perfect, which only makes Clint’s voice even more of an acquired taste in comparison. The subject matter (an inability to take other people’s words seriously) is down to earth, and the song is actually easy to dance to…until they launch into a riff in 23/4 time, complete with intrusive horn fanfares that clash with an already busy guitar part! Why did the band throw a monkey wrench into a song that was fine the way it was? Just because they could.

Why did Rhythm of Black Lines tack on a false ending to “My Suzerain”? Because they could. Why did the band overdub an irritating trombone solo right on top of the climax to “PJS,” and place it so far in the mix that it cancels out Clint’s voice? Because they could. Why did the band insert a house-music detour right in the middle of the title track? Because they could. However, just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD, and the band’s insistence on following any and every whim that comes into their heads (occasionally all at once) leaves large portions of Human Hand, Animal Band sounding like a mess, even in spite of the band’s formidable instrumental chops.

Saying that the band needs an editor would be an understatement on par with saying that ?uestlove needs a haircut. I know that my own curly afro makes such a statement sound hypocritical, but I don’t really care. Perhaps this might explain why, despite this album’s faults, I can’t totally dismiss it. I get the feeling that Rhythm of Black Lines truly don‘t give a crap whether I enjoy their music or not. Clint sings on the album’s very first song, “With or without you we’ll do just fine.” Human Hand, Animal Band is proof enough that he means what he sings, and such tenacity is definitely worthy of respect, if not outright admiration.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.rhythmofblacklines.com
Label Website: http://www.goldstandardlabs.com

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