March 29, 2007

Band of Eight Crafts Hot Classic

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When a band drafts a roster with upwards of eight members, (so many that there are two pairs of members that share last names but ARE NOT all related) the key is layers, and Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s has mastered the layering of instruments and the layering of harmonies. Perhaps they’ve mastered everything except for the art of constructing a decent name for their veritable musical circus of a band. But what they lack in moniker, the Great Eight more than make up for in what really matters … the music, stupid. Don’t let the first impression fool you, listen to The Dust of Retreat and get pummeled by charismatic melody.

The record opens with bleak atmospherics on “A Sea Chanty of Sorts” and then after a few measures the guitars, other stringed instruments and crestfallen vocals penetrate the track’s prelude. Many tiers of breathy female backup vocals harmonize with the tales of children who “weep at their dead mother’s feet” and other less-than-joyful anecdotes. “Chanty’s” exercise in melancholy then leads seamlessly into “Skeleton Key,” a melodic, immediately catchy tune that layers smart lyrics with poppy beats and harmony. The genius of the song is that the eight members all weave their myriad instruments and voices in an out of the tune to interlace a tapestry of music in a way that no smaller band could ever achieve and no larger band could ever maintain. There are strings, what sounds like stomping feet, tambourines, maracas, drums that somehow ricochet across the song and guitars that oscillate along with the similarly styled vocals. Stated simply, “Skeleton Key” is a stunning success of a song.

Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s are the best of indie rock because they aren’t afraid of instruments outside of electric guitars, bass and drums. They don’t cower at the notion of keeping more than five people onstage at a time. All they are concerned with is the art of music, and consequently, their symphonic balladry sounds fully composed and absolutely expert, especially compared to any other debut record released on an indie label. The quality of the music prevails beyond the limited scope of their Artemis Records resources.

The brains behind the octet come from an Indianapolis native named Richard Edwards, credited as writer for all twelve beauteous tracks. His original effort was called Archer Avenue, after the street those recovering precocious kids lived on in The Royal Tenenbaums. This band is also named after Gwyneth Paltrow’s melancholy character in the same Wes Anderson opus. This album’s concept, as described by Edwards, is “fancies of Greenwich Village in the 1960s … to play how they feel when they’re watching Woody Allen films.” His mixture of glumness and wit achieves that idea, though listening to the record does not evoke imagery of short and frail hypochondriac Manhattanites (thankfully).

The group flaunts their shapeshifting prowess with “Quiet as a Mouse.” This track also begins with dark atmospherics, but then it evolves into a downright rocker with some electric edge. The So and So’s even inject some electronica into the tune that reminisces of Star Wars’ R2D2. In an aural 180 degree flip, upcoming tracks, like “Jen Is Bringin’ the Drugs,” display that Bright Eyes’ has clearly impressed upon the group. “Jen” exhibits simply a sparse ‘solo’ recording of Edwards and an acoustic guitar. Though it doesn’t exhibit the specialty of the group, it does demonstrate the talents of its core member. Thus, “Jen Is Bringin’ the Drugs” depicts the bottom layer of the Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s operation.

The closest comparison might be Broken Social Scene, but Margot sounds decidedly more American, influenced by all sorts of homegrown genres in their heartland homebase of Indiana. An example of this is “Talking in Code,” reminiscent of “Gone for Good” by the Shins, since both twangful ballads borrow from old school Country and Western tales of woe. If the band has one weakness, it’s their tendency to trade their undeniable pop awareness for slow paces. Doubtfully however, was the decision to use slow and deliberate cadences unintentionally. Surely Edwards and Co. would contend that the down-tempo quality of Dust agrees more with the aforementioned album concept.

If the band ever receives the deserved, but unlikely, radio play they have earned with such a blissfully melodic record, maybe they could move out of the house that they all share in Indianapolis. Maybe they can buy a real cat to replace their “paper kitty” mascot that represents the two founding member’s initial happenstance meeting at a pet shop. Maybe the pasty Midwesterners could even afford a much-needed hour of UV rays and some Zs in a tanning salon. Maybe, but probably not. At least when they all sleep under the same roof, cat-less and pale in Indiana, their talent will keep them warm at night.