April 14, 2006

Flin Flon "Dixie"

I only know three people who love the music of Flin Flon as much as I do: Aisha, a fashion design major at the University of North Texas; Stef, who attends art school in Baltimore; and Tati, a photographer who lives in New York City. All three of them have dedicated their lives to making things that look cool, so it’s only right that their taste in music would follow suit. After all, Flin Flon is fronted by a man who designs book covers for Houghton Mifflin, and whose label Teenbeat is known for fusing the music of the unpretentious Virginia/DC indie-pop scene with the lush design aesthetic of English labels like 4AD and Factory.

Flin Flon is probably the only band I can think of that can be described as minimal AND self-indulgent. Mark Robinson rarely plays chords on his guitar, opting instead to either play simple single-note lines or not play at all. Drummer Matt Datesman doesn’t use cymbals; his kit consists solely of a kick, snare, two toms and a hi-hat. Bassist Nattles is relied on to do most of the melodic work. Is there a specific agenda behind this “no chords, no cymbals” setup? Why does their latest album begin and end with 90-second drum solos? Why are the second and penultimate tracks different versions of the same song (“Cardigan”)? Why can’t I tell the difference between them? Why are all of the songs named after Canadian cities? I highly doubt I’ll ever get answers to these questions. As long as Flin Flon keeps making records like Dixie, I won’t NEED answers. “Art for art’s sake” has never sounded this good.

Flin Flon’s stripped-down setup doesn’t keep them from scattering moments of virtuosic interplay all over Dixie. Most of the credit can be given to Datesman, who wanders all over his kit without sacrificing a whit of his metronomic precision. On “The Lookoff,” Datesman's violent snare hits perfectly underscore Mark’s goofy chorus: “I’m a kung-fu fighter/I will hold you tighter/I’m a kung-fu fighter/I will kick and hi-yah!” Datesman uses “Darlings” as an opportunity to showcase his wicked beat displacement skills, and crams “Annapolis Royal” with non-stop drum rolls and hissing hi-hats.

Mark and Nattles are no slouches, though, frequently meeting up with each other for brief bursts of lockstep harmony in almost every song. On “Trafalgar,” Mark’s harmonized guitars ring like church bells. Nowhere else is the band’s chemistry more evident than on “Rossignol.” The first minute is a jam, with Mark playing harmonics on his guitar and Datesman engaging in some tricky start/stop solos. Once Nattles joins in with his grinding bass line, the song works itself up into lather, tacks on an obligatory verse and ends. It’s already one of my all-time Flin Flon favorites.

Mark’s lyrics frequently stop just short of making sense. He is content with either singing poetic non sequiturs (“I am the walking man/Olympic pedestrian/I am the walking man/Feet-first mannequin”) or sketching sordid scenes (“Fatal accident at the arena/No compassion/a hockey subpoena”). The closest Flin Flon comes to a topical song is “Darlings,” whose lyrics were actually written by Mark’s wife. On that song, Mark rallies our current generation to “fight the power,” and reminisces about his own youthful rebellion: “When I was young/Spent a lot of time in Washington/Days were long/People were making every day ‘rock against Reagan’.”

Dixie is Flin Flon’s best album yet. It stands right at the midpoint between the sprightly pop of their debut album A-OK and the darker experiments of its follow-up Boo Boo. Of course, some have already accused the band of treading water, but why fix it if it ain’t broke? Flin Flon’s got a distinctive sound going, and they’re neither prolific enough nor popular enough to produce listener fatigue. With Dixie, Mark Robinson has reaffirmed his status as a member of the exclusive club of label owners whose own music is just as good as that of the bands they release. (Matt McCaughan, stand up. Sean Combs, sit down.) One day, Aisha, Stef, Tati and I will be in the same city together, and we will use this album as the soundtrack for the best dance party ever.

Label Website: www.teenbeatrecords.com

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