This is an album about the grooves. Each song finds an absolutely un-assailable groove and rides that mother fucker 'til the wheels fall off. The grooves are tight, anchored by some surprisingly restrained yet kinetic drumming and rubbery, Contortions-on-quaaludes bass lines, but they aren't grooves in the sense that they are danceable or remotely funky. Yet they are grooves nonetheless. The key to that definition for me is how much time it takes me to focus on the complexities of the songs themselves. "I've Got Designs on You" for instance never struck me as particularly intricate or complex, but it spends a long time in 18/8 that's at once devoid of syncopations yet undeniable off. It could be the drums playing in swing-time while the rest of the instruments are playing in straight 6/4. It could be the way the tandem guitar-piano motif seems to stumble between the first two notes of the pattern on each repetition. It could be the disconnect between both of those patterns and the vocal lines, or the hairpin shift between the caterwauling of bassist Rob Lowe (no, not that Rob Lowe) and the airy slacker croon of guitarist Brian Case. Whatever it is that does it "I've Got Designs on You" just sounds fundamentally off, and that's before it goes into polyrhythms after about 4 minutes. It's a stealthily complex composition is what I'm saying, and that's mostly because the fundamental off-ness of the piece is masked by the addictive groove that it all adds into.
It has everything to do with Andy Lansangan. When Lansangan joined the trio of Case, Lowe and drummer Cayce Key for 2000's transitional (It (Is) It) Critical Band his piano playing seemed at odds with the previously set and barely evolved 90 Day Men sound. When it meshed we got something like "Sort of Is a Country in Love" but for the most part it seemed like they hadn't figured out how to really work this new element into their palette. To call To Everybody a leap forward is an understatement. In only a couple of years the band went from slightly derivative math/noise rockers to the closest thing to 10cc that the modern indie rock scene had. The intricate arrangements, the progressive nature of their new compositions, the embrace of Lansangan's keys as the focal point as opposed to Lowe's bass or Case's jagged guitar bursts. This is straight up art-pop, and no song makes that clearer than "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life." Say what you will about Case's tendency to liberally use interjections of 'yeah' to make his lyrics fit the beat...actually ignore his lyrics for now and just listen to the flow of the piece itself. Once again, the odd time signature is masked by a tight as hell groove, Lansangan's in the driver's seat and the piece briskly rolls along for a scant 3 minutes powered by Key's subtly complex beat. It's skews closer to the 'pop' side of the equation than anything in the band's discography, yet sounds nothing like any kind of pop, art- or otherwise, that the decade has pushed out.
It doesn't stop there though. "St. Theresa in Ecstacy" is eight minutes of cascading keyboards and dreamy textures all held down by Lowe's bass line, possibly the most beautiful sustained piece on the album. "we Blame Chicago" plays like the band's version of "Underture", calling back to various passages from all the other tracks on the album while carrying through it's own undeniable melody, and "Alligator" plays a bit like "I've Got Designs on You" by way of "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life", grafting the formers loping/threatening pulse onto the latter's intimate pop-craft. In the context of the album these represent the weakest section, but isolate them and compare them to every other thing I've talked about so far and they stand proudly above them. Between the band's new found synchronicity - check out those seamless transitions during "We Blame Chicago" - and producer John Congleton's lush yet natural sound you've still got an incredibly strong 20 minute stretch of slightly progressive-minded art pop. It only feels weak because the remaining 20 minutes of To Everbody is so exceptionally strong that it would lay waste to pretty much any like-minded music made in the last 20 years.
And as good as the opening duo are, particularly "I've Got Designs on You," they can't hold a candle to the album's closer, the nealy nine-minute two part suite of "A National Car Crash." Once again, it's the perfect balancing act between the progressive and the pop, the former coming through in the structure and the latter in the melody. The vocals are shared here as well, but instead of caterwauling the way he did on the opener Lowe stays much more low key for his section giving it a nice understated quality- one that was sorely lacking in his contributions to their final release - and gives more emphasis to the truly enthralling and intricate instrumental that Lansangan's leading underneath him. Then the song shifts into Case's section where there's actual catharsis for once. Think about it: "Designs" was 7 minutes of tension that was barely alleviated by its jaunty piano conclusion, the remaining tracks were moody but never to the extremes of release or tension "Car Crash"'s second section is pure release, and it's absolutely glorious to feel after 35 minutes of stasis, as beautiful and fascinating as that stasis was. Even if Case's lyrics aren't high poetry, the feeling that he puts behind his Smiths-quoting breakup allegory (I think) makes the words themselves all but inessential to the proceedings. It stands as one of the best closing sections of any album this decade, only rivaled by the ending of my #1 album here.
It's rather unfortunate that the band couldn't match this with their (so far) final album. PAnda PArk wasn't bad, hell I had it as my #1 of 2004 back in 2004 and I wouldn't hesitate to have it i nthe top 10 there still, but outside of the two numbers that Case sings solo (the already discussed "Too Late or Too Dead" and "When Your Luck Runs Out") and the instrumental closer "Night Birds" it never reaches the heights of even the relatively weak midsection here. To Everybody was a revelation, showing the band progressing into realms that few bands of their lineage had charted previously (Cheer-Accident being the only one I can think of off the top of my head) and doing it while shedding all the awkwardness of their tentative steps in this direction. Panda Park was more of the same, but it didn't push things forward as much as it could have. Either that or having Rob Lowe sing more often obscured the fact that they were pushing things forward...anyway, I don't mean to dump on the band's seeming swan song too much since it is a great album, but it seems destined to stay in the shadow of of To Everybody for the forseeable future. Given the 5 years of inactivty since then - Lowe joined up with TV on the Radio and put out a couple of interesting solo albums under the Lichens moniker, Case became the guitarist for mildly notable post-punkers The Ponys and Lansangan returned to the never-heard-by-me Sterling with a few other Chicago veterans - it's likely to remain that way for quite a while but that's OK by me. At least we have To Everybody.