A Different Kind of Listening CD
(Rating: 7.8 out of 10)
You remember back in high school when they made you take all of those math classes you never thought you'd use? Sure you do. You used to sit behind that weird kid Jimmy, who always picked his nose and stuck the goobers to the bottom of his chair. And for the life of you, you couldn't figure out when the hell you were ever going to utilize your extensive knowledge of quadratic equations. But you sat through it all-- you learned the FOIL method and the difference between a sine and a cosine, and you were glad when it was all over and you'd never have to deal with complex math again.
Well, get ready for a time warp, because math is back, girlfriend. And this time, it rocks. On their debut album, Boston's Nationale Blue throw more numbers in your face than you could possibly comprehend without running for that graphing calculator you first mastered "Tetris" on all those years ago. Seems these boys are fickle fellas, rarely staying loyal to any one time signature for very long.
The trio wastes no time letting you know what's up, opening their debut with a skittering programmed beat and laying sounds on top of it like gathering clouds before letting loose in a torrent of pure rhythm. The instrumental, "Silver Alien Pyjamas in II Movements," bursts free with keyboard ostinatos and hovering, alien guitars, moving quickly onto charging guitar heroism before finally settling for a while on a more relaxed groove. Taken for what it is, it's perfectly exhilarating, though my major complaint-- and this applies to several tracks on the album-- is that melody isn't a constant enough presence. Occasionally, the band will simply be jamming, with nothing to support, a fact that weakens the album somewhat.
Over half of A Different Kind of Listening is instrumental, and it's pretty easy to see why. The band is highly skilled at hitting the listener with hairpin turns and laying down intriguing guitar textures, but their songwriting and vocal skills haven't quite caught up to their compositional mastery. In much the same way that melody's absence can be felt during some stretches, a lot of the vocal parts feel underdeveloped and a little too amelodic, especially early in the disc.
To the band's credit, the album actually gathers strength as it wears on-- the band seems to have saved some of the best parts for last. For instance, "Unraveling Secret Codes," an instrumental deconstruction of the vocal tune "Secret Codes." The instrumental effectively takes the most basic musical elements of song and stretches them like rhythmic putty to their logical breaking point. The shouted, punkish vocal parts also start to fit in better, as the band builds rhythmic environments for the verses that house them more appropriately.
"Hearts and Knives" manages a thrashing chorus with its repeated mantra of, "In the river, you'll fall." It's one of the dirtiest tracks here, too, crying up from a blanket of distortion that the band is only too happy to fold up and stow away on most of the tracks. This works to the band's advantage, as their intricately interlocking parts come through best when the guitars are clean and well defined. Instrumental "Where the Hawks Fly" creeps along on one of the band's most steadfast rhythms, as bassist Dave Altman and drummer Adam Kriney lock in with each other and guitarist Reuben Bettsak allows himself to wander a little more. As much as their fast and furious rhythmic shifts and u-turns can be frequently engaging and interesting, it's nice to hear them stick around in regular old four for a while.
Of course, you can't get off the hook that easily. There's plenty more complex math to be had on the galloping one-two combination of "Made Up Meanings to Made Up Words" and closer "Your Head Is in the Dark, I Cannot Extract You." "Your Head" is one of the band's finest offerings, clanging along mightily on a thick bassline and charging drums outlined by rapidly strummed guitar. After the last vocal section (you could hardly label things choruses and verses in this realm-- the songs have far too many sections and breakdowns), the band rolls up their sleeves to reveal some surprisingly thick biceps, pummeling one last time signature into the ground before careening to a tightly wound finish.
And there you have it. By this point, your ass has been math-rocked six ways from Sunday, and you'll rarely hear it done with more conviction or facility. When they're not out graphing new directions for their music, the Nationale Blue like to smash their head pretty hard on the punk rock, too, and it shows in the energetic and convincing performances they put up. As well as they present it, though, there's a certain emotional distance to the music that means it's definitely not going to be everyone's bag. But the Nationale Blue do manage to pull off what none of my teachers ever managed to: they make math appealing, and I don't even have to sit behind Jimmy to enjoy it.