Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Uphill Gardeners - The Uphill Gardeners [olFactory/Kill Shaman]/Moses Campbell - Who are You? Who is Anyone? [olFactory/Static Aktion/NGA]

Catching up on the latest olFactory Records releases, an LP by The Uphill Gardeners and a CD by Moses Campbell.
The thing that most interested me about The Uphill Gardeners (apparently that's a homophobic slur I've been unaware of all these years) is Bobb Bruno's presence in the trio (along with Jarrett Silberman and Nigel Lundemo.) Whether wreaking havoc on small villages as Goliath Bird Eater or jamming under his own name, Bruno's stuff is always solid. You'd never know Bruno was involved though without the accompanying press sheet, the record is outfitted sparsely with a tracklist-as-cover art sleeve with a printed approximation of what the b-side of the record looks like on the back. No band name or label info anywhere. When the world finally collapses and we no longer have the plush comfort of the internet (if people are still listening to records) everyone will be scratching their heads over who made this? when did it come out? Which is somewhat fitting as the recordings that make up this LP were done in '96 and '97 (one of the few morsels of information present on the sleeve) and are just getting released. Apparently when the band was active they released a CD and 7" and this LP collects material that didn't make it onto either of those as well as sessions for an abandoned album.
The Uphill Gardners were spawned back in the middle 90s when instrumental rock music was pretty popular in the underground scenes for some reason and this record is definitely a trip back in musical time. I don't mean to say that music sounds dated necessarily but there's something about tightly coiled avant-rock coupled with the absence of vocals that is firmly placed in that timeframe, in my mind at least.
"Boner Music" opens up with a rigid A-Frames style battering. A mild pummeling more interested in the dynamics of rhythm than brute force. After making subtle rhythmic re-adjustments, the band segues into a back and forth play between a rhythmic/feedback figure and a swirling-tar, detuned undercurrent. Especially dig that latter part. The band pulls together a stiff-lipped polyrhythmic figure to end on before going double time to an almost disco section. It's a great track and the trio navigates the multitude of change-ups with staggering precision. My favorite track, "Goldenrod Sunrise," knocks up the tempo a notch or two. The trio plays things close to the chest for a little while throwing in subtle changes here and there until a minute and a half brings a simple but remarkably catching guitar line. The Uphill Gardeners ride the strength of that guitar line for while as a DJ would with a great beat though there's a few tricks such as filtering the entire mix that pop up. The track wraps with a breakdown that morphs into fuzzy drones. "I've Gotta Stop Getting Pregnant" begins with thick fuzzy drones as well. There's a rhythmic pulse buried in the deep black slime that drums latch onto around a minute in. The song slowly slides from doom to mid-tempo strong-armed rock, though the pounding bridge isn't quite as potent as other changes in the previous tracks. However, the heavy repetitive bass and guitar lacerations that cover the most of the track get the job done pretty well. It kinda of just peters out though and doesn't leave as strong of an impression as the first two. The album's shortest track "Sounds" features an almost trip-hop drum beat and rolling bass line. The guitar leaves some lingering, swelling drones and a brittle keyboard plinks out a 3-note melody. It's a nice, easy going piece to end the side on.
The second side is split between two ten minute jams. "He is Master..." starts out on some disgruntled strumming and continues for 3 minutes or so like some dude jamming with his halfstack in his bedroom. From there there's a bit of organ and whatnot until the drums show up leading to a riff that manages to be heavy and have a sweet little shuffle about it too. Though the second part is due more to the drums. This would actually be pretty good driving music or maybe it would even work with a late 70s crime movie montage. It really is all about the drums here, they lay down an uncommonly infectious groove, and the band has the good sense to just ride it out. For a while anyway, just when you think the track is over the trio seriously attacks you with a blisteringly loud 45 second outro of noise. Definitely unexpected and a touch painful with headphones turned up. "Diet Experiment" has a nice little melody, which was also unexpected, I can't quite tell if its guitar or keyboard (both?) but it sort of hangs in the background with a modest crystal/fantasy vibe. Though they're playing pretty nice here The Uphill Gardeners seem as though they're harboring a bit of tension and the jam is about to ditch the hypnosis for some cathartic raging. That doesn't happen exactly, but they do up the tempo for while and the break down into looser territory. The final minutes are a bit of a scrambled mess and one of my favorite sections of the album. The download code also supplies you with a bonus track "Growing Up Next To Poison" and I don't see why it wasn't included on the vinyl as it's a pretty sweet track but there you have it.
This stuff is kinda difficult to describe, it's easier to define by which categories it doesn't fit into than to find one in which it does. Anyone seriously longing for that instrumental mathy/avant rock of yore i.e. the 90s, your record of the year awaits.
Who are You? Who is Anyone? , a co-release between olFactory, Static Aktion and No Girls Allowed, the band's imprint, is the debut album from Moses Campbell an L.A. area six piece with the usual instruments in tow (guitar/bass/drums) as well as violin, accordion and musical saw. The little bit of info I found about them in the bit of googling I did praised them for their energetic live show. I was bit surprised by this as the album seems like it could maybe use a shot of adrenaline. The best songs are by far the most energetic such as "Overhead" in which, after a nice, lilting acoustic guitar and musical saw duet, the band launches head first into an anthemic fist-pumper with guitar fuzz and accordion wheeze in full force and some really solid drumming as well. "Ugly" is catchy as well with an excellent polyrhythmic jaunt empowered by the propulsive, staccato rhythm section and chattering glockenspiel.
The music is pretty solid throughout the record but the major aspect of this album that I just do not connect with, and unfortunately it's a big one, is the vocals. Someone's voice is a personal thing so it's never fun to criticize but the vocalist sings with this mumbly, occasionally tone-deaf, kid-with-no-self-confidence-who-constantly-gets-stuffed-in-a-locker affectation that really works against the rest of the band. He may be going for some kind of Decemberists/Neutral Milk Hotel thing, I'm not sure, but it doesn't work here. The sometimes corny lyrics aren't a great help either. My least favorite tracks, "Wallflower" and "Fights and Clubs" make a flaccid pair and each is way too long at 5 and 5 and a half minutes respectively. The musical accompaniment is de-emphasized to the point that each of the tracks just collapse with little else to focus on but the vocals. One of the biggest issues with the album is too much of the time the instruments simply defer to backing up the vocals despite the record being at its best when the opposite occurs.
Taking "Overhead" for example, lyrics like "Just say you want it!/And it will be yours" fall a little limp without an authoritative presence on the microphone. It's really too bad because everything save for the vocals is firing on all cylinders; it could have been a great neo-Pogues kind of anthem with the right singer but even as it stands it's still a catchy song, one I'm often humming to myself. "Dano's the Man" throws some fuzz on the vocals and, though it doesn't entirely solve the problem, it's definitely an improvement to the band's overall sound. Incidentally, there's some great backing vocals on the track, I don't know who's responsible for those but maybe they should be fronting the band.
There's definitely some promising aspects to this record but as is, it didn't do a whole lot for me, although I'll be listening to "Overhead." However, I suppose for someone into folk-rock stuff who doesn't mind emo-ish vocals this record would certainly be worth a shot.

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