Wednesday, September 23, 2009

#99. Lift to Experience - The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads (Bella Union, 2001)

The concept album, or at least the conscious concept album, is a tricky thing to pull off well. That mixture of ambition, storytelling and music is easy to fuck up completely if you don't get the balance just right, or if one element is that little bit below the others in terms of execution. A weak story can sink a concept album as easily as weak music or lack of ambition to just fully go for it, but more importantly, the story you're telling needs to actual merit a full length musical epic to accompany it. Just because it's good from a pure story point of view doesn't mean it's got enough to it to make a good concept album/rock opera, it needs to have certain something more to it. Of course my qualifications for what makes a good concept album aren't universal, mostly because I have a tendency to read concepts into the most benign of albums - a few of which we'll be talking about here later - and refuse to accept things like OK Computer as part of that family. Even with that caveat, there are some albums that are unambiguously conceptual in nature, and those are the ones that generally catch my ear regardless of the specifics.

The concept at the heart of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads is the sort of thing that I could only see myself enjoying in this context. A movie or novel that centered around a trio of Texas boys who get word from the Lord that Texas is the true promised land where people can escape the oncoming Armageddon would just not work for me, but set it against vintage 80s dream/noise-pop and I'm halfway towards believing the central conceit of the concept. I don't know why I find it easier to stomach this heavy a dose of pure, uncut religion in this context, especially since the noise-pop end of Lift to Experience's sound isn't to the point where it obscures the vocals a la Jesus and Mary Chain/MBV. And the vocals are heavy on the biblical stuff, let me tell you. Its never crosses that narrow line into proselytizing though, instead vocalist Josh Pearson sounds like he's telling a very involved story. He's not concerned with convincing the listener that this whole 'Texas is the center of Jerusalem' thing is the way it is, but at the same time he sounds like he truly believes the ideals at the heart of it, even if their placed in a context that's utterly ridiculous to the outsider.

The real key though, is that Pearson and his band mates place their story in the midst of some exceptionally crafted songs. It goes without saying that despite my fascination with concept albums I don't go gaga over them unless there's a good portion of excellent songs hidden in their midst, and that's definitely the case here. The songs here are pretty uniform sonically, a haze of tremolo-picked guitar with a driving rhythm section produced by someone who clearly spent a lot of time with Loveless and Psychocandy on his turntable in his younger days all topped off with some excellent harmony vocals from the core trio. The songs may work together to build up the concept, but they still stand individually as great examples of modern dream pop, especially the glorious "Falling From Cloud 9" and the penultimate, mantraic "To Guard and to Guide You," and none of the 11 tracks stand out as being particularly weak. The only quibble would be that "Into the Storm" does that kind of annoying thing where the song ends halfway through its allotted time, there's a fairly large period of silence and then a 'bonus track' rises out of it. It's not something I think is necessary in the best of circumstances, and the fragment of a song that gets thrown in at the end of the track isn't exactly necessary or noteworthy so the whole exercise feels a bit unnecessary. Even with that minor fault though, the album stands out as one of those truly singular works that I don't think could ever be replicated. It's a special album,and one that deserves a lot more praise than it gets.

Coming up tomorrow: One of the most sonically interesting emo-adjacent bands of the decade.

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