It has taken these slow ears of mine almost 20 years now – starting the clock at the moment that Eamon Martin turned me on to Tortoise’s post-rock genre-spawning Millions Now Living Will Never Die – to acknowledge that there is a whole new jangle rock out there. This jangle requires no iconic Rickenbacker guitars (and cannot afford them in any case). It is barely conscious of the Byrds, much less of the dBs or of REM. Its tense, diatonically ambiguous guitar arpeggios owe less to “Ticket to Ride” than to the dwelling colors, tone washes and forestalled resolutions of Satie and Debussy, to the methods and mandalas of Steve Reich and Philip Glass applied to pop ends. And this New Jangle, for all its lucid, impressionistic prettiness, is seldom more than a dry hairsbreadth away from real crunch and angst.
The New Jangle doesn’t classify itself as such. Some New Jangle camps under the post-rock flag, eschewing the extreme dynamics and extreme emotions favored by those in the disputed jurisdictions of Emo. Some New Jangle, like North Carolina’s Polvo, must live, unjustly, with the unattractive brand of “Math Rock,” for this New Jangle is as fond of “Where’s the one?” perspective tricks and shifting phase alignments as it is of pop-tease harmonic irresolutions.
The New Jangle’s Athens, Georgia is Chicago, Illinois, where Tortoise and Jim O’Rourke blurred the lines between serious academic Minimalism and rock; where echoes of their pattern studies can be heard in the art-leaning Midwestern folk jangle of early Sufjan Stevens and early Andrew Bird; where, in the ‘90s, Cap’n Jazz discovered an entirely new way to rock a garage, seemingly without progenitors and influences. So Chicago it is, with a secondary capital in Chapel Hill. But If the New Jangle has produced a single pop star, it would be Seattle’s Death Cab for Cutie.
From the downbeat of Track One on its new EP Bikini Island (2015, Limited Fanfare Records), the New Paltz-centered outfit Lives of the Obscure positions itself proudly, if unwittingly, as a New Jangle art band, and a high-adept one at that. The slant, vaguely major-key two-guitar figure that begins “Coughing” jangles away in waltz time, until the rhythm section (drummer/producer Sean Hansen and bassist Mike Sutton) crashes in in straight 4/4, recontextualizing that original figure rhythmically and harmonically in a way that would make Philip Glass really grok the range of his influence.
So it goes across the EP’s five tracks of luminous, dramatic and finely architected guitar art. “Curt Loader” achieves Bikini Island’s most delightful, Weeezeresque pop moment, the title track its most remote, smeared and tensely chromatic Impressionism. In between, it’s a little bit mathy, a little poppy, a little emo and entirely its own thing.
Bikini Island is a reentry, not a debut. 2014’s wonderfully overstuffed Into the Stacks provided ample proof-of-concept that these veteran local art/rock players (including members of the great bands Park Ranger and Joshua) could get behind and elevate the dramatic, surreal, fragmented and imagistic narratives of singer/guitarist and principal writer Nicholas Haines. If anything, Haines’ poetry has gotten more artfully oblique, surreal and fractured on Bikini Island, but the arrangements, forms and sounds have stepped up to greater coherence. Way up. Sean Hansen’s production is lush, crunchy, dynamic and intimate. Guitarists Haines and Keith Bogart intertwine and co-jangle in ways that are sublimely subtle and harmonically sophisticated.
As in so much of the best art/rock, Haines’s lyrics poke through a jungle of jangle with an arresting image here, hints of psychological foreboding there, dashes of oblique cultural commentary and a few requisite gestures of modern-youth despair. Closer examination reveals some real thematic coherence on this record, however, and it is not a happy place. Haines has a great flair for myth and neurosis, evident right out of the gate in the album opening verse:
Maude hooked us up with the greatest sour in the universe.
Maude told us that there was a loving voice deep down inside of us.
Mine was a parakeet.
His name was Stephen Butler.
His mother came to me in dream visions.
Maude taught me how to make these incisions.
Check out Lives of the Obscure at BSP, located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston, on Thursday, April 16. It is a free show and also features Oneonta’s grafted, i am. For more on Lives of the Obscure and a sneak peak at Bikini Island, visit www.limitedfanfare.com.