September 08, 2004

mandarin "fast future present"

(Editor's note--this review originally ran in June of 2003, but because the record's just been reissued and because our opinion hasn't changed of this really great record, we simply decided to reprint our original review. Enjoy!)

Like the Intima's Peril and Panic, Mandarin's sophomore album took much longer to materialize than I wanted it to. I first saw this Denton, Texas quartet live when they opened for the Polyphonic Spree at an Austin show more than two years ago. During this show, as well as the next three times I saw them, they played most of the songs that would end up on Fast Future Present. All of these songs would remain in my head for months until the next time I saw them. The band's had their album in the can for a while, but I assume that the folding of their previous label, Denton's Two Ohm Hop, caused Mandarin great difficulty in obtaining distribution for it. The wait to obtain these songs in recorded form became too much to bear. I brought my eight-track and all of my microphones with me to one of their hometown shows last fall so that I could tape it. That's something I hadn't done for any other band. Despite my inexperience at live taping, the show came out well, and I listened to their slightly rough renditions of these songs until the tapes were close to wearing out.

About a month ago, I went to Recycled Books in Denton and saw a rack of copies of Fast Future Present. I jumped up and down like a hyperactive schoolgirl, causing the clerks to glance at me with consternation, and snatched a copy out of the rack. I was ecstatic that Mandarin was finally able to get its music out to the general public, or at least the Denton populace. The packaging was exquisite: all of the artwork was printed on cardboard paper, and the lyrics were wrapped up in a thin scroll, which was then tied up in red string and slid into the spine of the CD case. When I took the wrapping off of the case, I noticed that the CD was actually a CD-R. When I unwrapped the scroll of lyrics, I found out that I had bought copy number twenty-eight of a limited pressing of fifty copies. There was a note on the scroll that read, "Please feel free to make copies of [the album] and give it to your friends. We only have so much time to make these ourselves." With Fast Future Present, Mandarin have taken the concept of Do-It-Yourself to another level. In spite of not being able to get a bar-coded, glass-mastered CD in the stores, the band made sure that the packaging of the album was just as attractive as the music.

Mandarin shouldn't have to Do It Themselves, though, because their music screams to be backed by a Touch and Go or a Merge. I cite those two labels because they were also homes to the band I consider to be Mandarin's main stylistic parent: the mighty Polvo. In fact, anyone who owns the This Eclipse EP and the Shapes album (Polvo's jazziest and most ethnic releases, respectively) owes it to themselves to check Mandarin out. The elaborately finger-picked guitars, long instrumental bridges, time signature changes, and breathy, strained vocals that made Eclipse such a easy listen compared to the rest of Polvo's records are all over Fast Future Present. The juxtaposition of blues riffs and Middle Eastern scales that marked the underrated Shapes are also present. Mandarin differ from Polvo in two main ways: their lyrics make more literal sense, and their transitions (for the most part) are much smoother.

When songs like "Eye on Time," "How Long?", and "Holiday" switch into
odd-metered vamps, you'll be in too strong of a trance to notice that the band's taking you into the stratosphere with them. When you hear the snaky guitar lines and junk percussion of "Holiday" and closer "The Gift of Not Living," you'll get that same stranded-in-a-Hindu-temple atmosphere that the best parts of Shapes evoke. The mangled pentatonic riffs of "Pilot Light" and "Virus Smile" rock a lot harder than they have a right to, and "When Heat Sleeps" and "Shadow Your Shadow" even stay in tempo long enough to form a groove suitable for dancing. Yes, it's math-rock you can DANCE to...who'd have thunk it? My personal favorite, "Even If We Stay," manages to be so catchy that not even the long, plodding piano soliloquy that bisects the song (the band never play this part of the song live, thank God) can disrupt its momentum. Sometimes, Mandarin's love of musical tangents trips them up, especially on the latter half of the record. "Dim Lit Vow" goes through six different sections in seven minutes, and although each of these sections are solid and pretty enough to base a song of its own around, the end result sounds like a collage gone slightly wrong. However, out of Fast Future Present's eleven proper songs, that's the only one I skip, and ten out of eleven is not a bad ratio for any band.

Mandarin have done a very good job with this album. Of course, there are one or two songs on it that could have been replaced by stronger songs from the band's live repertoire, but I make that criticism because I'm lucky enough to live in the same state as Mandarin and see them play live on a regular basis. Those of you outside of Texas will most likely fail to find fault with Fast Future Present. You can tell how much care the band put into it even before pressing play, and because of such (let alone the actual great music), the album deserves to transcend the Do It Yourself ghetto.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website:
Label Website:

No comments: