(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Recording review - Helvetia, Nothing In Rambling (2012)

Outsider simplicity finds its own path

Helvetia's music comes from a nexus point of Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock, and Stephen Malkmus. Like those artists, Helvetia delivers their songs with a matter-of-fact simplicity coupled with an outsider musical aesthetic. In a kind of savant approach, they know where they want the songs to go, but they don't always take a familiar path to get there. That odd perspective is a large part of Nothing In Rambling's charm.

Bandleader Jason Albertini used to play with the spaced out jam band Duster. As Helvetia, he and fellow ex-Duster Canaan Dove Amber have collaborated with outside musicians, including members of Built To Spill and Dinosaur Jr.

Compared to Duster's defocused space, Nothing in Rambling is more directed, but the music is still dreamy and suffused with a drifting languor. The pop length tunes are soft-focused snapshots of a strange, psychedelic prog world that Helvetia knows well. The band is adept at creating rich, surrealistic collages. Where other bands can be self-indulgent or theatrical, Helvetia remains understated and natural.

On RyBro, the vocal has a touch of Stephen Malkmus' detachment, which works well with the Pavement style guitar grind scattered throughout the tune. The pop psychedelic sound edges more towards Guided By Voices. The lyrics are directed, yet skewed. They could have sprung from Robert Pollard's feverish mind:

Most erratic traps
Now you're talkin'
I bet you drove all night (oh yeah)
Just to show that you don't really care
What you really could be.
The offbeat groove limps forward with a practiced ease and a steady acoustic strum. Nicely paired electric guitars provide some sweet, meandering fills. The bridge, with its underwater organ caresses, is just a brief pause before the closing solo. The tune sounds like Albertini is a little smug at figuring out a difficult equation, so now he can understand someone's motivation. The lyrics reveal enough of his underlying logic to hint at a kind of Asperger's, but that perspective makes the song work.

Don't mistake detached and dreamy for cheery, though. The album captures a range of moods. A Mirror, for example begins with an anxious, staccato beat accompanied by sharp fills from a single coil guitar cloaked in an ominous, thick reverb. Moody and insistent, the sound is detuned and blurry, like old, over-saturated Polaroids. The tension reminds me of the lack of control during an episode of sleep paralysis. It's the space between dreaming and waking, where the rational world is drifting away. Conscious enough to recognize this, the listener is powerless to affect it. The musical sections of the song flip past in a progressive rock flow.

The lazy vibe seems to break with Nettles, where a spiky, speed-picked guitar and rolling snare offer an appropriately prickly intro. But this quickly collapses into a wide open sound, like one of Robyn Hitchcock's musing compositions. The song lingers in this spacy reverie long enough to set the psychedelic hook. Then, like a skittish school of fish, it veers off in new directions. One moment it's Beatlesque, then it twists to provide a moment of Syd Barrett naïveté. The blend of songlets shuffles through mood and tempo shifts before eventually winding back to the track's frenetic beginning.

Like the obsessive geek kids I grew up around, Helvetia aren't socialized to worry about their facade; they're just making music the only way that makes sense to them. Despite the mood shifts and experimental approach, that approach drives an artistic consistency on Nothing in Rambling.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture

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