Reviews

Now It's Overhead

Author: Christopher Dare
11/16/2001 | Pitchfork Media | www.pitchforkmedia.com | Album Review
Rating: 6.0

Alright, first off, Now It's Overhead do not sound like the Cure. They don't sound like Depeche Mode, they don't sound like Spiritualized, and they sure as hell don't sound like My Bloody Valentine. There can only be three reasons for critics to make such comparisons in their reviews:

1) They're deaf
2) They've never listened to any of these seminal bands
3) They used the Saddle Creek website as a cheat sheet

I'm guessing #3, primarily because the same comparisons are made in the band's promotional material. Likewise, about half of the web's reviews of this self-titled debut begin with the fact that Now It's Overhead is the first non-Nebraskan act signed to Saddle Creek. At least this promo factoid points us in the right direction, because Athens, Georgia is home to both Now It's Overhead and most of the Elephant 6 collective. They share a unique blend of psychedelic pop and indie rock, far from the darkwave and shoegazer tendencies you'd imagine from all those reviews.
Like the individual Elephant 6 groups, the Now It's Overhead project arises from the vision of a singular songwriter. In this case, the iconic bandleader is Andy LeMaster, who wrote most of the songs and played a lot of the instruments. The band is rounded out by Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, more commonly known as the lovely duo Azure Ray. They provide gentle backing harmonies to LeMaster's lead and play an assortment of keyboards that mix nicely with Clay Leverett's versatile drumming. LeMaster is one-third owner of Athens' Chase Park Transduction studio, and his recording experience is evident in the unique production work throughout, a mysterious aura both high in fidelity and abstract in definition. But despite all they have going for them, I just don't like a lot of these songs.
Take the first, "Blackout Curtain," for example. It starts promisingly enough, with the soft patter of percussion and the faintest hint of Azure Ray-style sighing in the background. Then guest vocalist Melissa Etheridge steps in. Except it's not her; it's just Andy LeMaster's twangy whine. Don't get me wrong-I don't have anything against southern accents. It's just that his voice in particular pierces with its almost unbearably desperate pitch. Worse, after the verse builds into a hopeful mix of keyboard and acoustic guitar, the chorus goes all gospel. The instruments drop out in one of those calculated radio-hit moments and the voices rise in harmony: "Don't ever go away from here, and I will never go away." If there's any soul at all here, it's streaming on down from Billy Joel's "River of Dreams."
Likewise, the second track lights up like an ELO epic, with the same "ah-ah-ah" electronic pulse. The lyrics might stab at your heart, though: "Your goddamn uncle changed you some/ When you were five, more than once." LeMaster narrates the runaway well, very Teena Brandon-esque; it's hard to mock a story about abuse. But this song is called "Who's Jon," you see, and LeMaster short circuits everything with the kind of pap sentiment that Boys Don't Cry had the sense to avoid: "Who's Jon anyway? What does it mean, what did you expect me to say?" If only Number Five could appear and start breakdancing. He'd have more personality than this Jon D'oh.
"Hold Your Spin" starts off nice with whispering keyboards that give way to a relentless, militaristic thump and LeMaster's distorted vocals. The song shifts suddenly to a bouncy Ben Folds-style bridge, accented by strange claps radiating from different spots in the speaker. But every incidence of pop decency seems spoiled by the goofy choruses: "Were you born sideways? Did you have to rotate?" In some ideal world, this music would be the catchy chatter on the radio. But I've realized that this is the same pop inanity I'd make fun of if it were all over the airwaves. Sure, "6th Grade Roller" is a great driving song, with its danceable beat, maracas and analog synth, but do you really need to hear, "Fly around a ring/ I fly around a ring," repeated ad nauseum? It's been trapped in my head all day.
The later songs lose the pop luster and gain lyrical sensitivity. "Wonderful Scar" links a childhood accident with growing up, and the simple electric guitar chords and cymbal crashes make it a touching vignette. LeMaster's twang softens as the album moves on, and his composition skills become evident. The sparse drums and piano on "With a Subtle Look" illustrate a painful absence as he sings, "We started off across the room, locking eyes and subtle clues/ Connection then devotion grew, closer than our mothers knew... Now all the words we saved return to curse your name." Voices spiral eerily in the background, a disembodied drone used again in the splintered percussion and humming ambience of the melancholy album closer, "A Skeleton on Display."
Now It's Overhead is a very personal album. If you enjoy Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel or Elf Power, add a point or two to this rating. You might enjoy the combination of surreal production and unconventional rock, as well as LeMaster's ability to write songs that delve between the black-and-white into emotional complexity. But to compare: if Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs illustrates its tale of relationships through a window into pastoral Americana, Now It's Overhead tells a fragmented tale of a boy's coming-of-age framed through some superficial tricks from popular radio. The moodiness is a pill that's sweetened to the point where I gag. So I can't help but warn: you might want to duck this one.


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