Reviews

Enchanted Islands

Author: Jason Lymangrover
03/24/2009 | Billboard.com | www.billboard.com | Album Review
After their 2004 album, Beep Beep made a few lineup changes and took a step back from the Gang of Four/Wire-inspired angular post-punk that made up the bulk of Business Casual to make a cleaner album. That's not to say that the new direction makes the band any more mainstream, or a whiter sheep in the Saddle Creek catalog. The mathy signatures and weird anti-progressions that cause Beep Beep to stick out glaringly from the Conor Obersts and Rilo Kileys of the Omaha-based label are still inherent, but the group's edginess has become slightly worn away. The most obvious change is that Chris Hughes' once shouty vocals now waver between a top-octave falsetto, brassy Enon-esque sing-saying, and breathy oohs and aahs. Also, while Eric Bemberger's guitar work is still built on atonal and modal scales, it isn't doused in razor distortion, leaving it as a dirt-free, twangy tone, la Up on the Sun-era Meat Puppets. Like Up on the Sun's titular track, "Return to Me" has a Nashville country ballad feel, and is surprisingly subtle in contrast with the rest of the album, which often feels like a vehicle for Bemberger to show off guitar runs and inventive chord creations, while thumbing his nose at traditional verse-chorus-based song structures. Over the last five years, Beep Beep seem to have come to an understanding that radical tunes that are difficult to play are often difficult to enjoy from a listener's perspective. Caught in a compromise between Bemberger's messy, off-kilter guitar noodling and Hughes' yearning pop sensibilities, the two core members butt heads and alternate between extremes. Overcompensating for their most winding and crazy songs ("Seppuku," "Two Spirit," "The Whispering Waves"), simple pop songs are incorporated into the equation for balance. It might seem like a good idea to add some cooling relief after the freakout blitz sessions, except for the fact that the straight-ahead ballads "Baby Shoes" and "Wooden Nickels," simply put, are lackluster. "The Lion's Mouth" manages to meet somewhere in the middle, starting as a simple progression and evolving into something much more ambitious, while "Goodbye Sunshine" switches parts between verses comprised for dissonant tension and choruses built to release the angst. When common ground is found between the songs that are too tame and the songs that are overly jarring, the results are rock solid. It's just a matter of targeting the middle of the spectrum. [Limited editions are packaged with Surrounding Inlets, a bonus disc with six songs that didn't make the cut of Enchanted Islands. These extra tracks are subpar to the album but are probably worth owning -- if not for any other reason, it's insightful to find that their B-sides are even more reckless. "Hot Stuff" finds Beep Beep at their most punk, and "Fly Eyes" is a guitarless electronica tune laced with random, painfully shrill noise bursts.]


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