April 05, 2005

Ticonderoga "Ticonderoga"

Ticonderoga are one of those bands that seems to be blessed with an overabundance of talent. Not only are all three of its members capable singers and songwriters, but they all play a multitude of instruments, not all of which are traditionally associated with rock music (clarinet, violin, accordion, et cetera). All three members have played with each other in various bands over the last decade, since they were grade school students in Iowa City (they now live in Raleigh, NC). Their first full-length collaboration under the Ticonderoga name was self-recorded entirely at home, free of any of the budgetary or artistic constraints that a “professional” studio might impose. When three talented musicians who know each other extremely well are placed in an environment where they’re free to do whatever they want, they’re bound to get a bit self-indulgent, if only to keep themselves entertained. More than anything else, the songs on Ticonderoga’s debut album are characterized by an unyielding refusal to draw a straight line and follow it.

Ticonderoga have mastered the art of arrangement, and frequently keep listeners on their toes by adding new colors or textures to their songs at precisely the right moments. The album’s first proper song, “Northshore,” begins as an acoustic spaghetti western romp. At various points, one of the instruments suddenly drops out of the mix, only to reappear later on in the song. You’d expect this kind of trickery on a dub plate, but the warmth and intimacy of the recording makes clear that the musicians are doing this live. I can almost imagine the members nodding at each other, as if to telepathically communicate when to stop and start. “Kim and Kelly” begins with homemade percussion, weeping violins and world-weary singing, but abruptly shifts into a tangent of jazzy instrumental meandering. “All the Proud Dead” begins with a Polvo-like collision of skittish guitar riffs, but toward the end it fades into a duet between double bass and clarinet. The transition sounds as if someone had surreptitiously slipped Don Byron into the CD changer. The final song, “High Score,” sports a long bridge with layered violins and repetitive riffs that betrays a serious Steve Reich fetish before jolting itself back into the second verse.

Ticonderoga’s arrangements can get a bit too obtuse. Some songs have moments in which the musicians sound as if they’re playing in the same meter but can’t agree on where the “one” is. “Arrowhead,” in particular, sounds like each instrument was punched in from an entirely different song and glued to the same click track. (What makes it even more bewildering is that “Arrowhead” is one of the album’s catchiest and most grandiose songs.) The lyrics follow a similar pattern, or lack thereof. All three members’ voices tend to blur into one another, pitched midway between the clipped tenor of David Grubbs and the croaky slur of Ian Williams. The words don’t align themselves into clear verse/chorus demarcations. It’s as if the members just sang whatever came into their heads in one take, with just enough forethought to ensure that their vocals were in tune and on beat. Only two songs (“Over the Hill” and “Two Old Witches”) have anything close to conventional, repeated hooks.

Ticonderoga’s avoidance of the obvious is both a blessing and a curse. The constant switching of gears and the frequent moments of synergistic instrumental interplay make for an excellent headphone listen. However, many listeners will be awestruck while the CD is playing, only to struggle to remember any of the songs once it ends. This album is a quintessential “grower,” one that should worm its way into adventurous listeners’ hearts after repeated listening.

---Sean Padilla

Label Website: http://www.fiftyfourfortyorfight.com
Artist Website: http://www.ticonderobics.com

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