Out Of Phase--the debut from Chapel Hill-based North Elementary--kinda faked me out at first. The titanic piece of garage bubblegum that opens the disc ("Best Things") is fairly atypical--it's a great, infectious tune that just charges right at you, energized by hooks you won't be able to get out of your head for quite some time afterward. Soon enough, Out Of Phase downshifts into more low-key material. This casual variability is the greatest strength of the album. Running through a nice range of textures (the garage electronica of "Sean's Song # 4" or the nearly rustic and absolutely gorgeous "Wasting Time"), the deceptively quiet tunes that form the bulk of this disc nonetheless gather an impressive amount of force. Tying it all together is an adventurous range of textures and instruments--a tense, VU-style guitar line is situated at the center of "New Afternoon Nowhere," wedded to a quietly sci-fi electronic backdrop and drums that rise through the mix.
Elsewhere, "The Brain" starts out as a fairly straightforward piece of guitar pop, an anthemic hook solidly in place, but somewhere just beyond the halfway point something (a Moog? or heavily pitch-shifted guitar? or did North Elementary secretly drag Allen Ravenstine outta wherever he's been hiding for some Dub Housing-revisited EML keyboard work?) slowly rises in the mix, as the hypnotic vocal melody is slowly submerged beneath a gigantic wave of atmospheric melody. It's unusual, but effective and catchy as well.
Meanwhile, "Baby Washington" and "Medical Transfer" showcase both the songcraft of leader John Harrison and violinist Margaret White (both formerly of The Comas). Out Of Phase is a very promising debut; beneath the low-key surface, there are all kinds of great musical surprises to be found here.
Evil Wiener Presents ... Billy Sugarfix's Lost Gumdrop Kingdom
I had a brief epiphany at a house party one balmy Chapel Hill summer night involving the self-made musical world of one Bill McCormick. While revelers sprawled among the perfume of cut grass, hot dogs and beer, McCormick strummed guitar on the porch. An overzealous azalea bush obscured the view of him as he warmly introduced one of his favorite love songs, the chatter of conversations and crickets still audible over his voice. McCormick's reduction of the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" to its bare essence, a simple tale of unrequited love, sums up what makes the Evil Wiener and its tugboat captain Billy Sugarfix really chug. Fundamentally a trio with a solid rhythm section of Groves Willer on bass and Chuck Garrison on drums, the Wiener has been sprouting its head above the fauna of Chapel Hill for many years. McCormick spins metaphorical yarns, sometimes by blunt repetition, as in Gumdrop Kingdom's "Marching Band": "You're an hourglass, and I'm a minute-hand/You're a skyscraper and I'm plaster and sand," etc. Endless quirky adorations in "how do I love thee" counting by McCormick abound. Gorgeous barebones pop arises with harmonizing by guests like Adam Price of the Mayflies and Lynn Blakey of Tres Chicas. You'll find tiny fantastical stories of daily life with remarks like "My neighbors think I'm talking to myself/What the hell?" (in the hillbilly number "Fortune") but they're always lifted by unflinching enthusiasm. Tethered to a primitive beat courtesy of Garrison and Willer, the band opens up on numbers like "Marching Band" with horns courtesy of producer Chris Stamey, and super fun instro surf number "El Nino."
With cold beer buzzing folks as much as the fireflies that night, McCormick's aesthetic of miniature pop was luminescent. He re-birthed a punk masterpiece like a striped-shirted troubadour, a confused Romeo slowly beckoning to the object of his desire, "Do you love me babe?/What can I say?/Because I wanna be your boyfriend."
Evil Wiener will be playing at Go! Studios on Saturday, March 15, with Dom Casual.
THE PORT HURON STATEMENT
Named for (but otherwise unconnected to) Tom Hayden's '60s manifesto, The Port Huron Statement began as a home-based four-track project for former Sticky guitarist and vocalist Chip Taylor. The project quickly took on a life of its own and Taylor released Home Recordings 1997-1999, which was fleshed out with the addition of a handful of eight-track recordings done with a band in early 1999. Taylor recruited Asheville guitarist Chad Nance and the newly christened Port Huron Statement began performing regionally shortly thereafter. Nance left PHS in 2000, replaced by Boone resident Todd Henderson. Live shows showcasing their unique, personal pop began to draw a loyal audience in the area, and Taylor--a recent transplant to Raleigh--and Henderson began planning further recording. Building in grand fashion upon the foundation laid by the first disc, the recently released Tory further demonstrates Taylor's ability to craft sharp hooks and unique lyrics--precise and detailed examinations of tragic figures attempting to survive or hang on to their humanity, or portraits of relationships and devotion in unlikely settings. Taylor's knack for conjuring up catchy songs was well-established with Sticky, but Tory's inventive recordings (working this time in mostly studio settings) incorporate an increasingly subtle array of electronic and percussion effects, culminating in some of the most striking stuff he's ever done. Taylor and Henderson are occasionally assisted by other musicians (Greg Elkins, Lenoir-based popster Chris Church, ex-Sticky drummer Jon Leeds along with others), but the overall effect is still lean and effective. The colorful instrumentation is never overdone, and the mix of tough-minded popcraft, subtle textures and elegant lyrical detail bears at least a superficial resemblance to other, better-known contemporary masters of the form like The Flaming Lips or Magnetic Fields.
There's not a weak spot to be found on Tory--the 11 songs all maintain an impressive level of smart skill. Favorite moments of mine include the brief, propulsive "Tory Pt. II (I'm Toulouse Lautrec)" and "Bravery Will Be Rewarded," which--in different form--originated in the last few months of the Boone-based Sticky. But Tory is a start-to-finish treat--ask me again in a week and I'd probably pick different faves. Don't miss this one.