Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Her Space Holiday

For some reason, many recent acts which include a greater role for symphonic elements – namely strings and winds – have had a tendency to also be quite delicate. I'm thinking of artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Stephin Merritt's The Magnetic Fields or the Scottish chamber pop of Belle & Sebastian. Either due to the composition preferences of those songwriters (likely the case in regards to Stevens' portfolio), or their limitations in physical performance of their creations (Merritt's hearing disorder, or Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch's less than bombastic vocal might), their in-studio efforts include a measure of fragility which can sometimes undercut the strength contained in a more enhanced instrumental vision beyond the traditional guitar-bass-drums rock format. But this week's profilees – Her Space Holiday, Marc Bianchi's indie rock front – buck these trends on their most recent, eponymous release, out on August 16 on Bianchi's No More Good Ideas label.

Bianchi and his band of unnamed cohorts handily dispel the currently prevailing notion that more instrumentally intricate arrangements cannot include a dose of rock power on the 10-track record. Although opener "Anything for Progress" initially appears as gentle, acoustic-flavored indie pop, with lilting flutes and strings, the pace is upended quickly just after the half-minute mark, with its driving snare drum beat and rapid-fire lyrics serving as a early call-to-arms, and is explicitly so, as Bianchi snaps, "come on, little soldier, come fight for me..." Sure, it's a love song, and a relentlessly optimistic one at that, but the tone is decidedly militaristic – a musical esprit de corps that beats a hasty march across the album's first half. It's anything but delicate, and is a persuasive argument that horns and strings can add heft and force to a composition, not just nuance. As interesting is the carefree "ba-da, ba-da, ba-da" refrain at the song's midpoint, much in the same vein as the lighthearted chorus round in The Decemberists' "Billy Liar."

Of course, not all rock-via-orchestra productions have focused on sonic gentility as prominently as the Stevens/Magnetic Fields/Belle & Sebastian set. The Beatles' arrangements only grew louder as they became more grandiose under George Martin's involvement, and Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra was anything but restrained in its decibel levels. And more recently, the exemplary work of fun. on their debut, Aim & Ignite, fused Lynne-style AM pop with Freddie Mercury's muscular theatrics. It is in this tradition that Bianchi dons his instrumental armor.

The following "Black Cat Balloons" again begins subtly – and sounding a bit like Great Lakes Myth Society frontman Timothy Monger – but quickly emerges as an anthemic, gang chorus-driven affair, not far removed from a New Pornographers-style energy. Once more, Bianchi frames his message in militaristic themes – we hear of battles, bombs, and defenses – but they serve as cover for a larger discussion of beauty, camaraderie and bravery. It's hard to believe the barricades are imminent with a chorus that begins, "if we all said sorry and tried to mean it, would that make things cool between us?" Nonetheless, the recurrent snare foundation and swirling chorus inherently interject a sense of urgency, which vanishes just as quickly for the verses, like the hovering cloud of smoke following an aggressive cannon volley. The contrast makes the themes even richer, and sets-up the track's dynamic instrumental pinnacle; it's easily the collection's finest number.

The more balanced "Shonanoka" displays a bit more of the intricacy of Bianchi's nimble assembled players – whoever they are, with smartly plucked strings and skipping flutes pacing his linear narrative. Meanwhile, on "The Hummingbirds," Bianchi laments the fading health of a friend, with an expressive delivery not far removed from a younger Neil Diamond (similar to Mikel Jollett of past New Music Tuesdays reviewees Airborne Toxic Effect). It's completely removed from the hesitating, low-confidence style of Murdoch or Stevens, and once that serves the work well. At the same time, low-register clarinets and trilling violins are juxtaposed with clanging guitars and meaty drum fills to produce a curious hybrid of Peter and the Wolf and the New Pornographers' Twin Cinema.

By the time "Come On, All You Soldiers" rolls around, you're ready to enlist in whatever troupe Bianchi is assembling. Its the perfect material to rally the troops, storm the castle or stampede the alleyways; a unifying call to action in hopes of being part of something special. Whether the unit's weapons are the tools of war, a waving flag of solidarity or a jangling guitar riff is unimportant here. You can feel the movement building across the track's 3:24, as more singers, instruments and energy join the band of frolickers. As the Bianchi's crew explains, it's the ability to "bask inside the freedom of having nothing at all to hide."

The record's second half isn't as rousing as its first, however. "The Candle Jumped Over the Spoon" is sparse and disjointed for most of its 3:33, despite its folksy banjo and cello accompaniment, and "Ghost in the Garden" is a bit trippy and ethereal when compared with the rest of the proceedings. It also sounds heavily influenced by Destroyer frontman/occasional New Pornographers contributor Dan Bejar, most notably in the structure and delivery of the verses.

But "The Bullet, The Battle, The Trigger, The Barrel and Me" might just make you tear up a bit, with Bianchi's twin dedications to his late father and a fictional movie scene. "Death of a Writer" is slow and steady with its moody clavinet early on, which builds through spinning strings and the returning snare march. Closer "In the Time it Takes the Lights to Change" is the most Beatles-flavored, tracking to the Fab Four's later career excursions, somewhere in between "Happiness is a Warm Gun"and "A Day in the Life."

Come for: "Anything for Progress"
Stay for: "Black Cat Balloons"
You'll be surprised by: "Come On, All You Soldiers"

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