Friday, October 16, 2009

#79. U.S. Maple - Acre Thrills (Drag City, 2001)

In a way it's a good thing that Captain Beefheart doesn't have throngs of bands following in his footsteps. I love the guy's music, don't get me wrong, but any time an artist inspires throngs of followers they tend to get lazy as far as seeing the whole picture of what made the artist in question as good as they were. It's frustrating to hear so many bands only take the most readily apparent aspects of a great band without bothering with the deeper elements that made them iconic. Any group of individuals can throw together some Beatles-esque pop music but few can match their personal dynamics as they translated onto their albums, or the trajectory they took, or any number of other small but essential elements that made them the subject of rampant fanboyism. As a result, for me at least, these base level imitations cast a pall on the original band's output, not enough of one to totally kill my enjoyment of it but enough to make it seem less good than it would sound if I were completely objective. I'd hate to see that happen to Beefheart's music. I'd hate to have my next listen of Doc at the Radar Station be clouded by thoughts of how it led to some minor musical monstrosities down the line. It hasn't happened yet, and I hope it never happens.

It could just be that any Beefheart imitations out there are interesting enough in their own right to distract from their missing the whole picture. U.S. Maple are about as close as the 90s/00s has to any sort of approximation of the Beefheart sound, all angular guitar riffs colliding at weird intervals while the drummer bashes out an odd pattern between them and the vocalist goes on indecipherable surrealist flights of fancy, and while not all of their albums are great they're all at least interesting to me. I consider both of Acre Thrills' immediate predecessors, 1997's Sang Phat Editor and 1999's Talker, to be small steps down from the band's godly debut Long Hair In Three Stages, but they've still rated far more listens than any number of better albums simply because they're so singular in their oddness that I find them harder to resist. Luckily after those two came the band's most consistently engaging overall listen. 2001's Acre Thrills isn't the singularly weird, out of nowhere masterstroke of Long Hair, hell it borders on accessibility at some points, but it's the album that I'm most likely to stand up for as the highlight of their catalogue.

The best description I've heard for the music contained here is deconstructionist alt-rock. The band take all the constituent elements of your normal alt-rock songs and apply them in such a way that they're barely recognizable. There are chords anchoring things but they're voiced with odd overtones and rhythms that skew things off kilter at every turn. Both guitars are playing leads but they're at once opposing each other by trying to fit in the same space with wholly different tonalities and rhythms, and complimenting each other in odd ways - I'd liken it to the guitars finishing each others sentences, but in a loop where each guitar phrase is completed by its partner in a way that's somewhat antithetical but still works. The drumming is at once rigid and free, never quite giving the song a strong enough anchor to hamper its style but not letting it go so loose that you might as well call it free jazz. And of course, Al Johnson's are possibly the most indecipherable on both a lyrical and sonic level that have ever been recorded, only breathy 'yeah's and the song titles really shine through but their presence gives the songs a distinct flavor that I doubt anyone could - or would want to - reproduce. The way the elements all work together results in the strongest batch of songs the band has ever recorded, highlighted by the near-pop - seriously - of "Open a Rose" and the unsettling "Total Fruit Warning" but consistently great throughout it's (far too) short running time.

The biggest strength here is that it's the first time the production has matched the content in terms of quality. The biggest problem with the two previous albums, in retrospect, was that the production was overly murky, and when a band's sound is as reliant on interplay as Maple's is a murky production job lessens the impact considerably. On Acre Thrills the production is crystal clear, making stuff as inconsequential as "Babe" or the pair of untitled interludes pop off the disc just as much as the obvious highlights. The guitar team of Mark Shippy and Todd Rittman benefits from this clarity considerably, as the dueling strings of notes the two axemen lay out are both easily discerned and thus can be appreciated on their own as weird little miniature Beefheart-tributes or as they sound together, creating all sorts of weird dissonances and polyrhyhtms. The drums have that distinctive snap to them that really elevates something like the main section of "Troop and Trouble" to highlight level by drum sound alone. On top of the way it makes the individual components sound better than they ever have, the way it makes the whole album sound gives it a degree of cohesion and a degree of slight accessibility that belies the disconnected structures and overall weirdness of the product itself. I can't remember who it was that produced this one - Jim O'Rourke maybe? - but kudos to him or her for finding the best way to showcase the wonderful, weird world of U.S. Maple.

Coming up tomorrow: Why modern rock's fringes are the place to be.


well-bred horse said...

I dunno who "produced" the record (I'm pretty sure the band did while working closely with the engineer), but it was recorded at Pachyderm Studios in MN.

There's actually a 30-minute "making of" Acre Thrills on youtube that's well-worth watching and is as unique as the band themselves.

I remember the insert of this LP blowing my mind, due to it being a blueprint for Johnson's vocals. One of many indicators of a strong intelligence (and sense of humor!) that made up this band.

Great record. Strangely, I wrote off "Purple On Time" when it first came out, but in recent years I've come around on it. I don't know what took so long...

Piotr Skotnicki said...

Hi ! The engineer on Acre Thrills is Brian Paulson (his recording include Slint's Spiderland...).

Anonymous said...

BRILLIANT album/band. The only band that really comes close to this -- and Beefheart, too -- is scissor shock; I highly recomend getting the album PSYCHIC EXISTENTIALISM (it sold out all 50 copies in about 20 minutes and now hopelessly goes for hundreds of dollars, amongst the cult that even knows it exists -- it came and went too quickly for most people to hear ABOUT, let alone hear). luckily the band has put up the record in high quality on it took 2 years to write one song on the thing.