My first exposure to Brooklyn band Hi Red Center came last summer, when I saw them play at the Pilot Light in Knoxville, Tennessee. The lineup consisted of a drummer, a bassist and a guy who alternated between vibraphone, keyboard and percussion. All three musicians sang in unsteady yet charming harmony. Their music sounded like a fusion of Deerhoof’s freewheeling rock and Tortoise’s jazzy interplay. Like the former band’s Greg Saunier, Mike McCurdy makes his rhythms stomp, swing and stutter with aplomb. Multi-instrumentalist Russell Greenberg and bassist Lawrence Mesich pitted shards of melody against each other to create amazing displays of syncopation, occasionally locking together to play crushing unison riffs. I fell in love with Hi Red Center instantly.
I approached the guys after they finished breaking down their equipment to ask if they had any CDs out. They sold me an early CDR version of what would be their debut album, Architectural Failures. During our conversation, I also found out that they were actually MISSING a member that evening. Their guitarist had to skip a couple of shows in order to visit a sick family member. However, the sound those three guys made that night was so full that I felt like they didn’t need a guitarist in the first place! I’m not slighting Ben Lanz’s contributions to the band, though. After all, the first sound you hear on Architectural Failures is his galloping guitar kicking “Red/Green” into high gear, and his fuzzy power chords bring many of the album’s songs to glorious climaxes. He’s a pretty swell trombonist, too; his swooping, reverb-drenched solos on “Eureka” is a perfect match for Mesich’s operatic yelling.
Like Pattern Is Movement (whose SXSW showcase I wrote about in an earlier post), many of HRC’s songs thrive on the tension that arises when every instrument is playing in a different meter, and it’ll be a while before they reunite on the one. “Magic Teeth” is the biggest example of this tendency. During the verses, each member plays a miniature riff over and over again. None of these riffs are in the same meter, and none of them have more than five notes. Two of the members sing simultaneously, starting and stopping at different points from each other, and holding their notes for long periods of time. It might sound messy in theory, but the instruments are so consonant that the music eventually becomes as hypnotic as the best Steve Reich pieces. After a while, though, the band breaks the trance with a powerful four-chord unison riff.
Other songs feel like the musical equivalent of the childhood game “Red Light, Green Light,” as the band stops and starts with little regard for meter or momentum. “Evildoer” might be the first rock song I’ve ever heard that consists entirely of false endings. On “Alarm Will Sound,” the band inserts long gaps of silence between every iteration of the song’s central riff. As the song progresses, the gaps are slowly filled with off-key keyboard fills and gong hits. No matter how tricky the songs get, though, the music maintains a sense of playfulness, which can be attributed to the band’s animated vocal delivery and the nursery-rhyme simplicity of their lyrics. “Famous Hero”’s only lyrics are, “He’s only one man/With only one plan/Throw all the bad guys/Into the ocean.”
Architecture Failures is an excellent album that posits Hi Red Center as one of a (thankfully) growing number of bands who are hellbent on proving that experimental rock doesn’t have to be completely devoid of fun or melody. I look forward to seeing them live again — WITH their guitarist, of course — and hearing what they’ll come up with next!
Artist Website: www.hiredcenter.com
Label Website: www.pangaearecordings.com