Decades Under the Influence:
Three New Records Find the Way Forward By Reaching Backward

By: Brandon Forbes

The young but wonderful career of Denton TX’s Midlake should be instructive to us: fantastic albums can come out of delving into “period” rock. Bamnan and Silvercork (2004) is a lo-fi Sgt. Pepper’s – bizarre characters float through brief songs replete with bright melodies. Last year’s follow up, The Trials of Van Occupanther, took the playbook from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and transcribed it into a collection of hauntingly beautiful 1970s drenched blues-rock. Indie blog enthusiasm, as well as critical acclaim, has followed these forays and with good reason: the music is incredibly good. It seems, then, that retrospective reinterpretation can sometimes be as liberating as it is constraining. The approach is old and well-worn but the new creation can often, as in the case of Midlake, be refreshing.

Such a studied approach to “reinvigorating” classic sounds has been a huge part of indie releases so far in 2007. The following three records were chosen as a sampling from these releases, each having taken themes from the musical rock explosions of the 1960s and 1970s and refashioned them in their own likeness.


The Apples in Stereo
New Magnetic Wonder
Yep Roc

After a record drought of roughly five years, Robert Schneider has more than made up for the lull in the Apples output by releasing a 24-track monster complete with forays into a brand new musical scale which Schneider himself evidently invented. Classified as the “Non-Pythagorean Music Scale,” Schneider utilizes the familiar, yet dissonant tones of this new scale in many of the records segue moments that separate the longer pop songs. Sound familiar? The Elephant 6 collective may no longer be as vibrant as in the late ‘90s, but the Apples commitment to long track lists with plenty of these short pop capsules inserts means that tradition’s worship of The White Album and Abbey Road continues. And there’s nothing wrong with that: the Beatlemania highlight of New Magnetic Wonder is without doubt “Sun is Out”, where a bass lick filled with McCartney bounce guides prominent tambourine, group room vocals, and flighty flute loops. “Play Tough” also drives home the Beatles love with its descending hook and layered harmonies. But the kaleidoscope collage album art cover, which brings together images from nature, the cosmos, and the bookshelf into a swirling, dare I say, psychedelic montage, is also indicative of the numerous pop influences that inflect Wonder with, well, wonder. The 96 tracks used to create Electric Light Orchestra-approved “Same Old Drag”are put to incredible aural effect as electric piano chords, Vocoder background vocals, staccato guitar lead to magical conclusions. Jeff Lynne would also no doubt swoon over the driving Vocoder chorus of “7 Stars” and the Mellotron trappings of sing-a-long “Energy” where Schneider channels ancient Greek sage Heraclitus in affirming the boundless possibilities found in the movement of the world. The musical climax of the record is no doubt the four part “Beautiful Machine Parts”, split into two tracks, which moves from pop overdrive to acoustic dalliance to a dramatic guitar to strong build that is one of Wonder’s most beautiful, and impressive, moments. The pop writing of drummer Hilarie Sidney, who recorded for Wonder but has since left the band to focus on her band The High Water Marks, appears here as well on the rocking “Sunndal Song” and the epic twee “Sunday Sounds”, both of which feature her lead vocals. Overall, the misses are much fewer than the pop hits, as the failings of self-indulgent opener “Can You Feel It?” and drawn out sluggish jam “Open Eyes” can hardly bring the true power of the record down nor hide the taps Schneider makes into the history of pop music to fill his own cup. Listening to the frothy sounds of New Magnetic Wonder involves being transported into a realm much like that of the aforementioned cover art: it’s psychedelic, it’s literate, it’s stimulating. Now drink up.



Or Give Me Death

“I’ve been a father to you all” quips David Terry at the beginning of “Lying in the Bed I’ve Made”, and then continues “and for the most part, I’ve been a stranger too.” Such opposing sentiments define Terry’s art perfectly – the comforting familiarity of 1970s AM radio meets the innovative synth tones of the digital future on his second LP Or Give Me Death. While Ben Gibbard was partly responsible for getting Aqueduct signed to Barsuk, he’s not exactly Terry’s icon of musical emulation. Though the Postal Service’s blip-pop does have something in common with the electronic side of Terry’s songwriting, his influences are hardly the emo post-punk denizens from the Death Cab side. Brian Wilson figures squarely in Terry’s musical genealogy and this is nowhere more obvious than in vocal arrangements on Or Give Me Death. It’s scary, really, how much Terry sounds like Wilson at times. You’d swear the original Boy was the one opining on “Unavailable” that “Given that I have none to give, I need your love” or the one leading the emotive chorus of “Broken Records.” And you’d also swear the layered vocal harmonizing on the organ drenched post-chorus of “Lying in the Bed I’ve Made” or the call and response of “As You Wish” were Wilson compositions. And Terry helps this comparison further by downplaying the digital sounds of the future that overloaded his first record and upselling swelling strings, grand piano, and even mariachi horns throughout most of Or Give Me Death. Perhaps the best example of Terry’s cross fertilized 1970s to 2000s movement is boy toy lament “Just the Way I Are”, which recalls Wilson in tone and lyrics, while dropping a progressive string arrangement that subdues the song’s intro and outro. “Zero the Controls” encompasses the “forward” digital style in total, referencing Spyhunter among dissonant oscillating synths while occasionally letting moments of pop light through the murk. The only real negative moment on the record comes with “Wasted Energy,” where Terry sheds any resemblance to Wilson and strains uncomfortably away over big guitars and a random accordion. If this is the only misstep that the future of music holds, count me in as a listener. Make way for Mr. Brian Wilson 2007.


The Besnard Lakes
Are the Dark Horse

Finding out that Jace Lasek, frontman for Montreal’s Besnard Lakes, is a huge David Lynch fan is hardly surprising. One listen to Are the Dark Horse reveals backward-reaching vocal melodies enshrouded in dark eddies of sound via raw guitar and avant-string pieces which are certainly in tune with the Lynchian aesthetic. And just as in many Lynch projects, there is a reach back for an “authentic” past, which turns out, usually, to merely be a perversion of the present, Lasek and multi-instrumentalist wife Olga Goreas, along with modern composer and keyboardist Nicole Lizee, take the Besnard Lakes and look through a glass darkly to the past, finding their reflection in the darkly prescient immediacy of Are the Dark Horse. Recorded at Lasek’s studio in Montreal, this sophomore offering from the Lakes takes its retro-nods from three notable composers: Brian Wilson, Roy Orbison, and The Mama and The Papas. Quite a musical triumvirate, no doubt.

By bringing the beautiful melodies of his falsetto and Goreas’ harmonizing tones to the forefront of the mix, Lasek recalls one of the calling cards of Wilson’s classic Pet Sounds. Emulation of Wilson’s classic falsetto appears on the dreamy “For Agent 13” and the driving “On Bedford and Grand” recalls the uplifting pop of Wilson’s belated “teenage symphony to God,” Smile. The grittiness of the guitars on the record adds Orbison’s influence to the mix, especially on the slow burn of the seven minute “And You Lied to Me.” More interestingly, the folk melodies and male/female harmonies of The Mamas and the Papas seem placed like bookends on the record. Opener “Disaster” offers delicate folk melodies and menacing string pieces that recall “California Dreaming” while the trotting percussion and vocal harmonizing of closer “Cedric’s War” recalls the protest to peace call and response of 1960s. The shining moment of the record without question, however, is the epic “Because Tonight” which serves as the consummate reinterpretation: modernist string arrangements encompass a dancing feminine falsetto eventually swallowed by a distorted guitar waltz, powerful cymbal and tom syncopation, and epic vocals. It sounds like so many moments in David Lynch feel: profoundly disturbing but strangely satisfying, as if the inner darkness of the past has come to grips with the irreversible possibility of the present.



All opinions expressed by Brandon Forbes are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.