Initially released last year as an LP on Awesome Vistas The Tropics of Phenomenon by Brian Mumford’s Dragging an Ox Through Water project has now been given the professional CD treatment by fellow Portlander Pete Swanson on his still relatively young Freedom to Spend label. That’s a lot of info to cram into the first sentence but don’t you now have that fantastic sense of being an informed consumer? Moving on; upon hearing such an unwieldy and weighty moniker as Dragging an Ox Through Water I was not expecting a pop album but that’s pretty much what The Tropics of Phenomenon is.
“I Would Understand” instantly reminds me of Microphones stuff from earlier in the decade, a soft voice and a nylon string guitar. The thing is though over the top of that simple arrangement there’s a nutty free guitar/electronics/percussion paste that’s spread on thickly enough to set the track off kilter but not enough to dampen any of the melodic elements. The late introduction of a warm organ completes the lightly elegiac mood. At a minute and a half, it works well as a sampling of things to come. The second track, “Snowbank Treatment” is an instant stand out. The voice/guitar element is still present but augmented by an essentially electro arrangement: a steady electronic kick, a fuzzy synth melody and a heavily modulated, lilting keyboard lead. It’s pretty difficult to pull off an electro/acoustic thing and Mumford does it unbelievably well. It’s more a superficial comparison than anything else but Dragging an Ox Through Water reminds me of The Magnetic Fields where the songwriter’s grasp of the song is so strong that he can assemble odd arrangements culled from a number of sources and consistently end up with a great pop song. Mumford’s work certainly veers onto weirder avenues than The Magnetic Fields though. The beginning of “A.) The Unbearable Dumbness of Being B.) Earthen Airlock” is some kind of plunderphonic pastiche before a grimly buzzing synth coats the track thickly until fading to a long bout of near silence that makes up the rest of the track. “Dice Smiles” is the probably most plaintive, traditional ballad of the bunch with strums backed by a small orchestra of oscillators. It’s a pretty beautiful and surprisingly delicate arrangement. Interestingly enough there’s a silent fifth track delineating the two “sides” of the CD attempting to retain the feel of an LP. “Predictions” turns a sparse, punctuated acoustic arrangement into something reminiscent of a mechanical free jazz band before Mumford’s voice returns attempting to be heard above the din. The most straightforwardly pretty song on here, “Houses and Homonculi,” turns whining electronics, pretty close to the kind of thing you’d hear on a harsh noise tape, into an emotive and even somber expression in the presence of such a lovely fingerpicked melody and multi-tracked vocals. “Lilacs Sprang from These Apes' Brains (Shut Down All U.S. Torture Facilities)” operates more like an interlude than a song, flute-like oscillators singing and electronic gizmos all a fluttering and sputtering before the title, accompanied by guitar, is sung. “Devil’s Prayer” has a sprightly keyboard diddy and a buoyant rhythm before getting swallowed up by a blackened synthesizer and, luckily, its spat out again cause it makes you feel so damn good. Finisher “Not Harping on Powers” seems to have a bit more dramatic weight, making it a good choice to end the record on. This is partially just because of the song itself but there’s this raging inferno of distortion kept at bay during the whole song but it constantly threatens to subsume everything around it.
This record is incredibly solid; not only are there no throwaways, but the whole album is pretty much all highpoints. Mumford has developed a consistently engaging sound for this album and has a pretty good knack for when it’s best to defy expectation and when it’s best to let the melody play out. Also it must be mentioned that the voice can really make or break a record like this and Mumford’s voice, whether it’s not much more than a whisper or when he really goes for it, is really pleasant to listen to. There’s a naturalness and warmth to his delivery which is integral to the success of the whole venture.
I’ve been sitting here for a while, listening to the record for the third time, trying to come up with a good way to wrap this all up but it ain’t happening so I’m just gonna say this: Mumford has made just a fucking great pop record, which is way too much of a rarity these days, and I’m enjoying it immensely.
Still available from Freedom to Spend.