October 12, 2004

The Life & Times "Suburban Hymns"

Somewhere in Kansas City, the city that Allen Epley calls home, there’s a coterie of hipsters who would look at me like I had three heads if I told them that my first exposure to his music was through his current band, the Life and Times. They’d probably have the same reaction that I had when I met people who didn’t know who Stephen Malkmus was until he formed the Jicks. However, there’s an advantage to not knowing much about their previous bands: it allows one to evaluate their current music on its own terms, rather than unfairly comparing it to the music they made during their so-called “glory days.” Thus, just as my friend Sophia is able to appreciate Malkmus’ Face the Truth as the worthy album it is without the scepter of Pavement hovering over her head, I can listen to the Life and Times’ debut album Suburban Hymns without being forced to compare it to Shiner. Frankly, I think people like us ought to be envied.

It must be said, though, that the music Epley makes with the Life and Times is basically a streamlining of the sound that Shiner began to crystallize on their final album, 2001’s awesome The Egg. It’s a sound that I like to call “shoegaze on steroids.” There are a number of other bands I would give this description to (Hum, Failure, Electro Group) but, since most of them are either defunct or take way too long to make albums, I’m willing to call the Life and Times its leading practitioners.

Opening track “My Last Hostage” serves as a sonic template for everything that comes after it. Epley’s guitar plucks out high-pitched arpeggios, so drenched in distortion and reverb that the notes quickly blur into each other. His slightly raspy croon draws out each syllable so slowly that his words literally pull against the brisk tempo of the song. Synthesizers lurk and swoop over him as he sings. While Epley gazes at his shoes, his rhythm section supplies the steroids. Eric Albert outlines the actual chord progression with a muscular bass line, while Chris Metcalf drums with the swagger and force of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. These two are the Life and Times’ secret weapon, ensuring at all times that Epley’s dreamy, diffuse songs rock way harder than they have any right to.

Although Suburban Hymns is consistent almost to a fault, a couple of tracks do stand out. “Muscle Cars” sounds a bit like Interpol gone dub: the verses ride a dark, five-note guitar melody, while the stop/start drumming is run through various studio filters at seemingly random intervals. “Thrill Ride” is the closest that the band comes to making a ballad; the lugubrious music sharply contrasts the excitement Epley sings about in the chorus (“blasting my way out/bombs fall around me”). On the verses of “Shift Your Gaze,” Epley’s voice blends in so thoroughly with his guitar that the music assumes trance-like properties. It’s the perfect backdrop for the lyrics, in which Epley selflessly submits to a distant other. Last but not least, there’s “Skateland,” which is my personal favorite. Not only does this song boast the album’s best bass line, but the lyrics catalogue adolescent memories with haiku-like economy (“these southern days/radio station/black rollerskates”).

This album isn’t perfect: a couple of songs are short on hooks, and “Mea Culpa” is too long. However, at 42 minutes, the Life and Times don’t give themselves enough time to make any major screw-ups. Suburban Hymns is a solid --- often excellent --- album by a band good enough to render its members’ pedigrees completely irrelevant. If their next album can maintain this level of quality and supply a bit more stylistic diversity, Epley will have another classic album in his hands.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.thelifeandtimes.com
Label Website: http://www.desotorecords.com

No comments: