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Is it noble to refuse to compromise your artistic vision just to keep the interest of the audience? Maybe. Can you perform your new symphony of alienation in my apartment? No, and leave me off the guest list while you’re at it.
As cold as that answer may sound, some fine moments can occur in the muddle born of artistic arrogance and loud rackets. Multi-instrumentalist Tara Jane O’Neil develops subtle song structures on Peregrine that initially sound forlorn or lost minus the confines of a band. The record, which is neither a solo acoustic outing of fully realized tunes nor scattered fragments of ideas a la Lou Barlow’s shoddiest home recordings, eventually reveals delicately beautiful songs of repetition and ambience. Lacking the conventions of verses and choruses, the songs on Peregrine arrive not via hooks and melody per se; rather, they unfold as a feeling built from a quiet groove that sometimes hits you after the track ends.
Built around the gentle fills of Andrew Barker’s drumming, “1st Street” carries a quiet storm of minor chords and unfiltered background noise while O’Neil’s voice surfs the repetitive guitar part and textures the song with her lyrics. “We browned the bricks to stay warm then the chimney fell burning down/Time coming home tripping through lawns of maybe,” she sings, choosing sensuality over straight narrative.
Getting past many of the songs’ unconventional organization can be tough on first try, but in the case of “Bullhorn Moon,” it doesn’t take a lot of attention to the guitar-and-piano interplay to notice how pretty the two sound together. Rocking in a low-key manner, the song structure is one of the most immediately discernible on the record. “Bullhorn moon piercing hope turns red the bone and home isn’t home and love is the family you’ve found on your own” sounds simply lovely. Peregrine finds O’Neil thinking a lot about home, warmth, and the color brown. Bricks, gray houses, pine trees, and light shining off the ground combine in a consistent lyrical mood
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O’Neil, who hails from Louisville, Ky., has played several roles in various earlier bands (the Sonora Pine, Retsin, Rodan) and shares her guitar work on Peregrine with onetime Annapolitan Dan Littleton. Her past collaborations have given her some peculiar ideas about arrangement: Claiming to have left several song parts unwritten until the tape was running, she reportedly had guest musicians work with only one sound without revealing much else of the song. Regardless of how she got there, nothing on Peregrine sounds haphazard so much as it does deliberately gorgeous.
The warped droning that starts “Ode to a Passing” trails off into a dreamy sequence of strummed guitars, tinkling pianos, and O’Neil’s muttered lyrics. But when it hits the occasional break, her quiet voice rings clear to hit single lines like “You are fast.” It sounds a little like free association until about three-and-a-half minutes in, when the whole thing grabs together into an elegant structure.
If it’s intended as a display of technically difficult parts fitting no creative mold, Storm and Stress’ Under Thunder and Fluorescent Light succeeds handsomely. Unfortunately, Storm also proves that the sound of three crack musicians playing seemingly unrelated parts in different times can be irritating to no end.
Apparently deeply in love with their own instrumental prowess, the guys in Storm and Stress write and perform minimalist tributes to their own ideas while leaving little room for anyone else to enjoy the action. Whereas most musical showoffs drown the listener in a sea of misguided notes, Storm strips down almost all sounds, repeats ’em on guitar, and lets the drummer make like Ornette Coleman’s rhythm section minus any viscera: It’s all just time changes and fills in a quasi-improvisational faux-jazz jam session.
The record comes off largely like amateur night at the Improv, but to say that the parts on Thunder have no direction would be unfair: Every track suffocates under the guise of rigid direction and careful planning that rips all possible joy or exuberance from any given passage. Even the song titles reek of artists so enamored with their own navel-gazing that they consider the effort to reach the listener a waste of their talent. “It Takes a Million Years to Become Diamonds So Let’s Just Burn Like Coal Until the Sky’s Black” is just one example. The song consists of soulless jazz drum fills, funny noises made by guitars and bass, and someone muttering the title and other tuneless one-liners. You can hear the singer trying not to carry a tune so obviously that it becomes anti-anti-music. Virtually nothing sets one track apart from another, and the band’s complete unwillingness to supply a musical narrative for the listener leaves me convinced that releasing it for consumption is a singular act of musical self-gratification.
It’s hard to fathom how the members of Storm and Stress could have sat in a room with producer Jim O’Rourke and not gleaned an iota of his vast understanding of what can happen when talented musicians doff convention and make sounds that stand valid without the stuffy notions of what a song should be. But they did.
This road is hardly novel. No Wave revival artists such as the Scissor Girls and even Sonic Youth (at its most experimental) made wonderful, if challenging, noise with little concern about sounding sweet. Trumans Water, Trenchmouth, and even Baltimore’s Candy Machine certainly never wrote conventionally pretty tunes. But what separates those bands from this nonsense is their ability to make a musical case for why I should want to hear them. CP