Monday, July 11, 2011


Across the arch of history in the rock era, most ensembles have trended towards the smaller side – three- and four-person groups, largely avoiding the risk of bringing too many cooks into the kitchen. Sure, there are the obvious exceptions – the Grateful Dead, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band – of outfits sporting six and seven members. And, in recent years, the popularity of larger bands has been growing, with a cohort of units from the U.S. northern tier and Canada recording and touring with five-plus members, increasingly in a coed formats. The string of acts such as The Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes and The Polyphonic Spree all boasting significant numbers of performers, more than token representation from the other gender, and occasionally, collective approaches to their recorded sound and stage acts (the first trio of this list were profiled here, and the first two achieved #1 album status on their most recent releases). A quick tour through the previous reviews of this site will show a preponderance of groups of at least five musicians, although perhaps just demonstrating the preference of this reviewer for more substantially-sized bands.

So, unsurprisingly, this week's profile features another relatively beefy roster, in the form of the seven-piece, Portland, Ore.-based Agesandages. Boasting the communal vibe of previous profilees such as Hey, Rosetta!, Lost in the Trees and Seryn, along with the more kinetic energy of acts like the Rural Alberta Advantage and Ra Ra Riot, the group's debut, Alright You Restless – released February 15 on Knitting Factory Records – takes advantage of the inherent spirit contained in their numbers through well-crafted and accessible folk-rock ensemble pieces.

With their production largely channeled through guitarist and frontman Tim Perry, the record is stocked with full-throated chorus numbers strung across rhythm-heavy, rustic compositions. Leadoff track "No Nostalgia" is certainly reflective of that vision from its dawning strands, with a relentlessly affirming message. Stripped from their instrumental foundation and authenticity in performance, the lyrics might read like the bulletpoints from a motivational speaker or a credo of some rural commune. But their delivery here is more sincere, and the electric guitar riff laid down by lead guitarist John McDonald overcomes the blatant peppiness with some needed edge, while the easy stroll supplied by the rhythm section of drummer Daniel Hunt and bassist Rob Oberdorfer guards against too much group think. Strains of the Arcade Fire collective style also stream through here with the jaunty "hey!"s.

Though it's title might suggest otherwise, "Under a Cloud Shaped Like a Tomb" is less headstrong. Perry is a bit more out front here, more indicative of Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles than Arcade Fire's Win Butler, as the cut spins about with less focus than it's predecessor. Conversely, the collection's title track is more formulaic, with a stomp-stomp-clap beat underlying the proceedings while also serving as its most recognizable ingredient, although McDonald's acoustic lead part here is worth noting.

The most interesting and meaty selection is positioned in the clean-up spot. "So So Freely" effective parrots the carefree nature – interestingly of Frightened Rabbit's "Old, Old Fashioned"– with just a hint of The Who's meaty choruses. It's easily the record's most formidable offering, demonstrating the combined strength of the larger ensemble. It's a trait I wish was extended across more of the album. Despite their large numbers, only on a few occasions is the listener wowed by the force of the band as a whole. With that much collective input, the result should be an equivalent of output, which is achieved too infrequently, aside from the aforementioned number.

Which certainly isn't to suggest the songwriting or authenticity is lacking, just the next level of execution. The following "The Peaks" speaks to contrast of promise and perspective. While slow and, at times, plodding, Kate O'Brien-Clark's lilting piano imbues a measure of melody to the track, and the outfit would be best served to make fuller use of her talents in future releases (she also contributes string parts throughout the effort). Similarly, the slow-starting "Navy Parade (Escape from the Black River Bluffs)" sounds nearly lifted from a early-70's Neil Young track, with Perry encapsulating the venerable rocker's vinegary, nasal mewl. But, fortunately, the contributions of the full outfit stiffen the work, even through a full half minute of "la la las,"which only enliven the mood.

More enjoyable is "These Elbows," which lightheartedly sounds like a sampling from Sloan's mid-90's catalog, something near "Lines You Amend." O'Brien-Clark's piano – coupled with McDonald's acoustic guitar again – once more keep things uptempo, despite the repeated refrain of "keep you, incarcerated." Few other groups – perhaps aside from the aforementioned Sloan – could have delivered such a line with such mirth.

"Tap On Your Windowpane" is baroque at its outset, and increases in resolve and gravity as it builds. And, pleasantly, the closing tracks are among the production's finest. Although "When I Was Idle" again starts as middling, but rounds about to a full-on Rivers Cuomo-style round refrain by its midpoint. The hook here is so decidedly catchy you'll have thoroughly forgotten Perry's somber preface. Finally, "Souvenir" is befitting it's moniker – a delightful sample to take away with you at the end of your journey. Perhaps its been the lack of much electric guitar aside from the opener, but McDonald's part again cuts through across the drums-and-acoustic bedrock. When paired with it's mirror at the dawn of the record, the first and last tracks serve well as bookends for the collection.

Come for: "No Nostalgia"
Stay for: "So So Freely"
You'll be surprised by: "When I Was Idle"

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