Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Miracles of Modern Science

 Usually, each post in this space will begin with some background on a specific style of music or ruminations on the uniqueness of a given band or artist. For this post, however, what you can expect from this week's profilees – the smarty-smarty, high-energy orchestral rock quintet Miracles of Modern Science – is most easily explained through a Venn diagram:

You see, the soundscape of Miracles of Modern Science – or their self-appointed acronym, MOMS – easily aligns in the intersection of styles previously encountered in four NMT reviewees (in order of their initial NMTs appearance): the folksy bluegrass of the Farewell Drifters (NMT, NMT); the rusty plains howl of Rural Alberta Advantage (NMT, NMT), the gypsy diversity of DeVotchKa (NMT) and the nerdy humor of They Might Be Giants (NMT). This blend of styles is achieved with near perfection on MOMS' ambitious debut, Dog Year, self-released by the band on December 6.

MOMS may be the contemporary embodiment of how a new band is formed. Founding members Evan Younger and Josh Hirshfeld linked up at Princeton University in 2004 via Facebook. After refining their sonic direction as a mix of classical, rock and folk music – reflecting not such the tonal patterns of the acts identified above, but other groups ranging from the history-infused punk of Titus Andronicus (NMT), the orchestral foundations of peers like Ra Ra Riot (NMT) and Hey Rosetta (NMT) to the spirited collective format found in groups like the Arcade Fire (NMT) – double bassist Younger and mandolinst Hirshfeld filled-in their sound by adding violinist Kieran Ledwidge, cellist Geoff McDonald and drummer Tyler Pines. Although their approach checked few boxes on what band managers, record labels and promoters prioritize in new acts, the ability to record and distribute new music via electronic media today allows groups like MOMS to reach more of their intended audience without lessening their musical direction. This model is apparent throughout Dog Year.

Opener "Moms Away!" is vibrant, headstrong and witty, chronicling a dream involving a supersonic clash between man and machine. Younger, handling lead vocals throughout the record's dozen tracks, is a hybrid of Rural Alberta Advantage's Nils Edenloff and Tokyo Police Club's (NMT) Dave Monks, aided by Hirshfeld's backing vocals. Hirshfeld's mandolin drives the number, while Younger and Pines pace it with its galloping rythym, and the string parts of Ledwidge and McDonald provide it's color. When paired with Younger's sci-fi nightmare, it's a refreshingly odd output, especially with the strange nod to Aaron Copeland's "A Lincoln Portrait" after the final chorus. It's the sort of thing Titus Andronicus included on their sophomore release, The Monitor (NMT), and only adds to MOMS' quirky combination of elements.

This is all followed by the equally weird "Strangerous," the tale of a creepy stalker in the vein of the Barenaked Ladies' similarly disturbing, but likewise brilliant "Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank." Ledwidge and McDonald help set the mood with their lurking strings during the verses, and the whole thing takes off at its frenetic chorus. The group's propensity to conjure obscure song titles continues immediately on "Tensity," which matches its title's suggestion of stress with jerky figures from Hirshfeld's mandolin and Ledwidge's fiddle. It's a bit less tongue-in-cheek as its predecessors, but still well-constructed and executed, and spirals upwards to its chaotic zenith. A bit more restrained is "Eating Me Alive," with McDonald's gracious cello weaving through the verses, then racing off at the chorus in the same manner as so many Rural Alberta Advantage concepts. But the main gripe here is Younger's low-register bridge section. Like Edenloff and Monks, vocalists with more nasally tenor should avoid the deeper limits of their range, which often yields a noticeable downgrade in vocal enthusiasm and distinctiveness. Fortunately the barrage of instrumental firepower returns to close out the number.

Falling short of the initial outburst of energy found on the opening quartet of songs, "Quantum of Solace" is in keeping with the title's moribund frame. The pace and exhilaration that defined the album's early stages is absent here, and it's a hard slog. The same is true later on with "The Moon and Australia," albeit much shorter in length.

Despite these blemishes, the rest of the compilation is fantastic. Leadoff single "Luminol" builds from a bit of a sleepy start, fueled again by Hirshfeld and Ledwidge along with the unlikely addition of Beach Boys-style ooh-aah-ooh harmonies. Meanwhile, the woodlands zoology of "Friend of the Animals" is joyful throughout and animated by its campy animal imitations and barnyard jamboree at the end. The late-appearing duo of "Space Chopper" and "I Found Space" represents the record's finest work. The former is rambunctious and points to the big group sound of the Arcade Fire with its sing-along gang vocals, while the latter is pure exuberance, as if it were recorded among a gathering of the most delighted and possibly inebriated sci-fi nerds.

The same spirit returns to close out the album on "Bossa Supernova." It's a jubilant affair propelled by mandolin, violin and cello that alternate between ecstatic and measured, while Younger and Pine team to maintain the speed without caroming into anarchy. At the end, the not-so-disguised "Secret Track" is a cartoonish narrative of a man who lost his limbs and the resulting tragedies that beset him, the type of humorous content that have defined secret tracks spanning from Green Day's "All By Myself" to Barenaked Ladies' "She's On Time." Here, MOMS' protagonist is a mix of Dr. Scott from the Rocky Horror Show and Family Guy's Buzz Killington.

Come for: "Luminol"
Stay for: "I Found Space"
You'll be surprised by: "Bossa Supernova" 

P.S. MOMS does a fun cover of Foster the People's mega-hit, "Pumped Up Kicks"

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