August 25, 2002

Seana Carmody "Struts and Shocks"

In an earlier Mundane Sounds review of mine, I stated that bands with too many ideas are usually better than bands with too few ideas, and I backed up my assertion by briefly mentioning the Swirlies. That band's almost defunct now, but they were one of the late-nineties bands that helped me get through high school without strangling anyone. They forged a disjointed, but invigorating hybrid of My Bloody Valentine's whammy-bar acrobatics, Stereolab's Moog drones, and Sebadoh's collage-like approach to recording fidelity. I still love their music dearly, which is why I was so excited to see Seana's solo debut in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago. After leaving the Swirlies, Seana formed a forgettable outfit called Syrup USA, whose keyboard-driven twee pop had already been done better by Helium on their swan song The Magic City. I was curious as to what she would do on this record. Would she return to the noise of the Swirlies, continue with the frillier textures of Syrup USA, or throw me completely for a loop by forsaking them both?

As it turns out, Struts and Shocks stays somewhere in between
the first two options. Contrary to the album's title, Seana neither struts nor shocks anyone during these ten songs. Even on the louder songs, her voice never raises itself above a crisp, slightly flat croon. Most of this album ambles along in a pleasant mid-tempo groove that threatens to turn into mere background music if one doesn't listen attentively. At thirty-three minutes, the album is criminally brief; not all of the songs are solid, which leads me to believe that Seana really didn't have enough compelling material to fill a full-length. Ironically, the album's missteps are the songs in which she lays the distortion on thick. "Tailgate" shows promise but is marred by a meandering bridge and "Stay Awake" coasts on one chord for eight minutes that will leave most listeners unable to obey the title's command. Fortunately, the positives on this album outweigh the negatives.

First of all, "Mighty Bull" has become my favorite song released this
year. This evocative ode to a charismatic friend builds up to a breezy climax with nothing but four dissonant chords and a wordless melody. This song is probably the closest that Seana comes to establishing her own distinct sound. Reading the special thanks list in her liner notes will give you an idea of what the rest of this album sounds like. She thanks Victory at Sea front woman Mona Elliott (who also sings on two tracks), and the slow, tense waltz "Lazy Island" definitely bears that bandÕs influence. Seana also thanks Swirlies band mate Damon Tutunjian, and her usage of the whammy-bar on "Sidewalk" wouldn't sound out of place on their debut EP, What to Do About Them. The whimsical imagery and pretty, deliberate guitar strumming on "Tornadoes" and "Deirdre" make them sound like songs that Mary Timony forgot to write. Speaking of such, Mary's current drummer Christina Files was the woman who filled in on vocals and guitar for Seana when she left the Swirlies! This definitely has got to be some kind of musical circle of life, but I digress...

Seana could have removed the two weakest songs from Struts and
and marketed it as a mid-price EP. Having said that, the album is worth the ten bucks for "Mighty Bull" alone, and after registering under the indie-rock radar for so long, it's very nice to have Seana back. It's all uphill from here, and if the Swirlies don't manage to get their act together and make a third album, Seana's solo follow-up should be the next best thing.

---Sean Padilla

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