Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"From the Archives": City Center - City Center

So, the website I used to write for shut down and stopped paying their bills, meaning that hundreds of my old reviews are no longer accessible on the internet. In the meantime, I need a place to make a few old reviews available for a bit, so I thought I'd post them here.

This review was first published at www.30music.com in 2009.

Artist: City Center
Title: City Center
Label: Type
Format: CD/LP
Year: 2009

Let’s get business out of the way up front—City Center is the most recent project with Fred Thomas’s name attached to it. To some this might mean a lot, to others not so much. As with any new project or new album from an established artist, there are going to be similarities and differences with said artist’s previous works. In the case of City Center—the band being entirely composed of Thomas and long time collaborator Ryan Howard (not the behemoth first baseman)—it’s a safe bet to say that the immediate vintage pop/rock sound of Saturday Looks Good to Me, and the pop-folk of Thomas’s solo albums aren’t as immediate as some listeners might be used to. That being said, City Center's self-titled debut LP draws on Thomas’s propensity for strong melodies and engaging, lo-fi atmosphere to create a series of lush soundscapes with strong, pop hooks.

To a point, City Center revolves around the tension created between the two poles of melody and atmosphere. This tension is evident from the album’s opening track, “Killer Whale," through its opening juxtaposition of white noise with Thomas’s plaintive mumbling of a simple, but lovely melody. When, a verse deep into the song, a rich layer of acoustic guitar is dropped on top of the mix, the vocal melody—still a bit hesitant—comes to the fore. Once established, instead of riding out the strength of the melodic guitar and vocal combo, City Center allow the song’s melodic guts to drift just beyond accessibility, making traditional pop-melody the objet a to the fetish object of gauzy production. The result is both inviting and off-putting, but ultimately successful as the tension within the song’s space allows us to enter into the composition more fully, to lose ourselves inside its under-defined, yet meticulously designed boarders. While “Killer Whale” might almost feel like a toss-off table-setter, by establishing the album's primary sonic textures the song works as a thesis statement, of sorts, for an album that is equally obtuse and rewarding. Even on more immediately accessible songs, like the gorgeous and dreamy “Open/House” or the trippy, loop-driven “Bleed Blood,” melody never asserts itself as fully as we expect, or immediately want—it hesitates just beyond our normal expectations as the songs’ layers of sound simultaneously push us away from the melody, while pulling us inside the structure as a whole.

Of course, though “Killer Whale” is an excellent example for contextualizing the album as a whole, the album’s most stunning moment comes in the form of the almost nine minute “Cloud Center.” If “Killer Whale” is a preview of what’s to come, “Cloud Center” is the epic centerpiece, not quite the album's climax—that would be the one-two punch of the wild and textured “Summer School” and “Young Diamond,”—but the album’s heart. This is a bit problematic for vinyl enthusiasts as, due to side limitations, “Cloud Center” has been replaced on vinyl with “Teen” and “Gold Girls.” While both of these tracks fit the album well, and are both excellent in their own right, they don’t quite burn with the quiet, ambient intensity of "Cloud Center."

By the time City Center arrives at its conclusion, the stunningly stripped-down, mostly acoustic “Unfinished Hex,” listeners might very well find themselves overwhelmed. This album is full of ideas, and the choice to end the album with its closest thing to a straight-up folk-pop song will only make the experience that much more unsettling. By the time “Unfinished Hex” shows up, listeners are trained to enter into the songs, to explore their architecture. But here, at album’s end, is a song that almost sounds familiar. Of course, the closer we listen, the more we hear the imperfections and idiosyncrasies that provide the through-thread that keeps "Unfinished Hex" from floating away with the album's final moments, while at the same time allowing the song to resolve that tension between melody and atmosphere that continues through the album's full length. In the estimation of "Unfinished Hex," then, melody is the key to resolving those tensions, and while the album's arrival at the comfortable and accessible might feel a bit like a cop-out, the push-and-pull that brings us to that final moment are well worth the time and energy.

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