Sunday, January 1, 2006

Records In Review: Martha And The Muffins--This Is The Ice Age

Martha And The Muffins/M+M have always fallen between the cracks of Canadian music history. Perhaps it was inevitable; after all, they've had a punky-new wave hit single, been perceived as ahtsy (no mean feat with such a dumb band name), split their sound between Toronto, London and New York, and have vocalists who sound like a show-tune singer and an art nerd respectively (you figure out which). In other words, their generic identifiers aren't always easy to isolate. They've certainly never been fully given their due. Fortunately, some reissues have been popping up recently, and Mark and Martha have been playing a few shows, updating the oldies. This Is The Ice Age (1981) was their third and possibly best lp, and this beautifully remastered edition came out last spring.

The first thing that hits you about this album is the sound. Co-produced by a then-industry-toddler Daniel Lanois and the band, it's extremely warm and spacious, with an Eno-like attention to sonic detail and restraint. I'm not an M+M completist and it's been a while since I've heard the old stuff, but I don't remember being awfully impressed by the first couple of Mike Howlett-helmed records, production-wise--trying too hard to sound "new wave." In terms of instrumentation, (electric) piano's always around but there's plenty of room to spare for the bright and generally unfuzzed guitar, watery chorused bass and layer upon layer of keyboards and electronic experimentation. Influences are worn on sleeve, with the aforementioned Bald One, King Crimson and (especially) Talking Heads being the most obvious, but this isn't derivative stuff; the mellow chord progressions and ambience are entirely the band's own, and place them well within the context of the contemporary local scene.

I'll call this record rilly rilly good, 'cos it's maybe one substantial song short of being brilliant (a term I don't throw around lightly). I'm pleasantly surprised how well the single "Women Around The World At Work"has aged; given the subject matter and the fact that it's not a great fit with the surrounding material, being "hookier" and more spastic, it holds its own pretty well (I'm not even as annoyed by the squawking sax as I used to be). "You Sold The Cottage" is the other concession to rocking out here, and it"s squonky and fun. A lot of the material is more pattern-based, which is where the contemporary T. Heads and Crimson comparisons come in. The drums in "Swimming" are very Remain In Light, somewhere between pounding and skittering across the surface, and you've got to give it to Mr. Gane for managing to sound like both Adrian Belew (with the elephantosity--if that IS a guitar) and Robert Fripp (intermittent line/solo) in the same song--and a good one, too. The title track utilizes the same Africanish drum pattern and is the album's high point. What you think is going to be a breezy pop song effortlessly slides into a perfectly paced, hypnotic but detailed raga through which tons of sounds and rhythms pass in and out. "One Day In Paris" follows on the heels of this, rising out of the mist like an aubade, and is as lovely and plaintive a piano and vocal interlude as you're likely to hear. In fact, the quieter stuff is all very good, particularly "Boy Without Filters" which tests Mark's spoken-style vocal abilities to the limit but gets away with it--just. "Jets Seem Slower In London Skies" is a very pretty piano and keys instrumental.

My two minor beefs with the album is the upbeat, positivity-soaked addendum to the otherwise good "Casualties Of Glass" which brings to mind the more annoying aspects of these guys, and the concluding "Three Hundred Years/Chemistry," which is underwritten enough to leave you wanting more, more, MORE! Of the bonus tracks, "I'm No Good At Conversation" is a very good up-tempo number, and "Twenty-Two In Cincinnati" is noodling around. I don't think either were missed on the original album release, but both are welcome here.

I should mention that This Is The Ice Age also has a mega-cool cover featuring a shot of an obscured BMO tower. And it was only $12.99. I'm sorry, why are you still sitting at your computer when you could be out buying this? Highly recommended and immensely listenable.

No comments: