A swarm of mostly Brooklyn-headquartered virtual press has gathered around Battle Ave’s second record, Year of Nod (2015, Seagreen Records). Stereogum, Brooklyn Vegan, Impose and others have previewed its singles, told its story and attempted to define its “dark pop” sound with knots and weaves of descriptive language and with reference clusters involving mostly bands that you have not heard of: “Sounds like early Cat Girl showing up high on salvia to a custody hearing against the Lemon Coats with Stephen Malkmus’ German double presiding.” It gets even better in the Comments sections.
They seem drawn to this fine, unusual record like tenure-hungry anthropologists to an isolated tribe. The fact they can’t get past is that Battle Ave is from “upstate.” Again and again, it is noted that this dark pop emanates from “the Catskills,” as if that alone accounts for the peculiarity of songwriter Jesse Alexander’s Muse: his groggy, grandfatherly vocal delivery; the fragmented, symbol-laden, quaint Modernism of his lyrics; and the band’s sure hand with jangly drone and with long, accretive forms that change at the pace and in the layered, irregular manner of geology. In Year of Nod’s slow chemistry and in Alexander’s brilliantly doddering singing, your 20-something Brooklyn music scribe seems to hear a voice not merely of the hills, but quite possibly one descended from a hill: its father a mountain, its mother woodsmoke and the night sky.
These Catskills are a land of chronic nocturne with a population of, give or take, one. Writes Stereogum, “Battle Ave hail from upstate New York, which means they’re familiar with punishing winters, remote wilderness and the allure of an expansive, all-night city winking and glowing just hours away.” Impose concludes that “The sheer wonder the remote Catskills embody, paired with [Battle Ave’s] brand of lush, gloomy pop, seems, more or less, like something from nothing.”
Funny that Battle Ave sounds—to me, more or less—like a good Brooklyn band.
Barns. The mid-Hudson Valley music scene is increasingly becoming a story of several barns. The barns of Woodstock house Levon’s Grammies, Landy’s iconic portraits and the still-vital legacy of Grossman, Dylan, Butterfield, the Band and so on. While Jesse Alexander was raised under the shadow of the Bearsville barn Theater, he does not partake much of its aesthetics.
Year of Nod was recorded and mixed in a different barn by Kevin McMahon (Titus Andronicus, Real Estate, Swans, Diarrhea Planet), whose distinctive articulate mumble can be heard issuing guidance at the beginning of the numinous, ambiguous folk epic “Zoa.” McMahon moved his New York City studio Marcata to a barn outside of New Paltz a number of years ago, and that barn now appears to be the county seat of the alternative, the resistance to the still-prevailing currents of Ulster County barn rock.
Year of Nod is a moody electric rock record, but there is indeed a pastoral quality to it, expressed in its lazy-river pace, the way that it dwells in pretty much one key for its duration and in the way that it augments Alexander’s and Adam Stoutenburgh’s chimey electric guitar latticework with grassy pads and beds, copper chords on August organs, the perpetual-but-barely-perceptible insectoid buzzing, wheeze and elliptical drift of a country summer. But this pastorality is an entirely urban strategy, a Brooklyn-synched gesture of neo-primitivism and the new naïveté. You can hear variants of the same aesthetic argument in the work of a couple dozen hundred ecstatic new-folk and in all the post-Arcade Fire indie collectives.
What differentiates Battle Ave is not its remote point of origin, but rather the band’s extreme patience and uncompromising naturalism. While the sound of this electric “dark pop” is quite often bright, warm and jangly, tempos range from mid downward. Change is constant but glacial, keyed to the stopping and starting of Sammi Niss’s elegant, pattern-based drumming and Sam Mintzer’s bass. The arrangements play like a horizontal pan along a cross-section of a landscape, vertically stratified and not of human design. Even percussion parts seem sometimes more environmental than intentional. The “drum” part on the song “Lalande” sounds like a couple of guys outside the studio trying to hammer an old screen door into shape so that it will close; I swear you can hear them cursing a few times.
Alexander’s singing and writing may be grandfatherly, but it is a Grandpa who doesn’t speak much of the fact that he used to trade sketches with Man Ray, that he traveled the Greek Isles with Henry Miller and that William Carlos Williams was his childhood physician. Alexander’s default lyrical setting is a downsized Whitmanesque, a groping, cataloguing attempt to define one’s place in the cosmos and the cosmos’ place in one’s self; but its magical ambitions are undercut in a delightful way by frequent, surprisingly gritty and acidic details: “See my parents dressed in black,” he sings on the opening track “Aleph,” “icy stares across the racetrack.”
Ultimately, Year of Nod delivers the otherworldly stupefaction that its title promises by sticking to its guns, crafting a geo-timeline feel of great heft, long throw and a croaking beauty, lightened by frequent female vocal cameos by Emma Tringali of the band Pop & Obachan and by Greta Kline of the much ballyhooed Frankie Cosmos. They sound like angels next to Rip Van Alexander’s ancient voice of them thar hills. You’d sound like an angel next to Alexander’s ancient voice of them thar hills.
Battle Ave celebrates the release of Year of Nod at BSP in Kingston on Friday, May 8, with additional sets by labelmate Sam Kogon and scenemates Pelican Movement and Earl Boykins. The show starts at 9 p.m. Admission costs $6. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. For more information, visit www.bspkingston.com.
Battle Ave Year of Nod CD release + Pelican Movement, Earl Boykins & Sam Kogon, Friday, May 8, 9 p.m., 18+, $9, BSP, 323 Wall Street Kingston; www.bspkingston.com.