Thursday, September 1, 2005

Records In Review: New Musik--Anywhere

For a review of New Musik's first album and some background, click here. Self-referential already, for god's sake.

The prevailing view, among the 15 shut-ins like me who listened to the band, is that album number one is the bee's knees, while the other two continue to battle it out for distant second. Well, I say to you muthas: it's on, 'cos I actually prefer Anywhere to From A To B in some ways. It's just different, and in Toronto we're supposed to celebrate diversity, no?

The most obvious change from the first album is the instrumentation. Keyboards are front and centre; in fact, there's a number of all-keyboard songs, like the creepy and cool "Areas" and "Peace." No acoustic piano, though. The drums are mostly box, as far as I can tell, and even if they're not they're as austere as austere can be--no fills or four-/eight-bar cues. Tony Mansfield's acoustic guitar takes a back seat, other than on "This World of Walter," and while there may be bass guitar here and there, the only thing that I can definitively pick out is the slappy part in "Churches." Vocals are more in the middle of the mix and there's a lot of backwards effects.

The result of all of this is an other-worldly sounding record. The minimalism of the "rhythm section" and the subtler textural contrasts (compared to From A...) create an impression of drifting that is very appealing, at least to me. This is probably where a lot of the difference in opinion lies viz the first two albums. Song structure isn't for the most part radically different, but the use of breaks, middle-eights and the like is more experimental and less naive (compare "Living By Numbers" with "Churches") and there's less reliance on traditional pop hooks.

The first side is the better one, and has a really nice shape and lots of variety to it. Of particular note is the aforementioned "Areas," which uses keyboards and a Roland Compu-Rhythm beatbox on Bossa Nova setting to create Mansfield's unique version of lounge, and "While You Wait," which has some incredible keyboard arrangements and a degree of new-wave aggression to it previously unknown to the band. "Churches" and the opener "They All Run After The Carving Knife" are both flawed pieces that work: the former is an odd blend of charming pop melody and ascetic composition, and the latter is an incessant beatbox-driven scorcher that doesn't develop much but still packs a punch. I could do without the swingy cheeze of "Luxury," which is pretty gutless and the album's lowest moment.

Side two suffers from taking a while to get going. "Changing Minds" is more notable for its arrangement than anything else--not that I'm complaining too much, as the arrangement is great . "Peace" is pleasant but overlong, and, after "Luxury," I'm in less of a mood for that damn beatbox. The best stuff is, Oreo-like, in the middle. "Design" contains echoes of "Sanctuary" from the first album, but with more of a sense of repose. I know I keep going on about them, but if those bell sounds in the chorus lead-in don't make you weep with joy, then you're not anyone I care to know. "Traps" is one of my favourite NM songs. As in "Areas," the Roland-type beatbox is used really well and blends in nicely with the organ sounds and electronic bass (not to mention the late '70s Genesis keyboard sound used in the outtro). The lyrical conceit (of being, er, trapped) is illustrated musically with measured pacing and circular chord progressions. The concluding track "Back To Room One" would have been a hit single in an alternate universe where people listen to good, wistful music.

It turned out that, commercially speaking, Anywhere was an overly hopeful title for the record. And that's a damn shame. Pick up both From A To B and this one. Pay the exorbitant import prices, if necessary, 'cos they're both worth it.