Thursday, May 21, 2009

Album Review: The Great Nostalgic

Title: The Great Nostalgic | Released: May 1, 2009 | Label: self-released

Great NostalgicA lot of music fans cringe when they hear the words "concept album." It conjures up images of 1970s prog rock double-albums about elves and wizards. But in 2009, having a concept can make for a mature, cohesive, and intriguing album. That's exactly what The Great Nostalgic have done with their self-titled debut.

First, some background: The Great Nostalgic started off as a solo recording project by multi-instrumentalist Abram Shook, who at the time was on bass, sax, and synth duties for The Laughing. While recording the album in 2007, Shook became consumed with the music, putting all of his time and creative energy into it, eventually quitting his current band to launch The Great Nostalgic as his main gig.

That's not surprising when you listen to the album. This collection of eleven tracks is infused with an inspired energy, what Michael Gira (of '80s underground noise-makers Swans) calls "the honed violence of intent." Meaning, you can give the same guitar to four different guitarists and get four entirely different sounds. One guitarist might sound bland and uninspired, but the next guitarist with that same guitar might sound anxious and hungry. That's how I feel about the music on this album. It's folksy indie rock; everyone's doing that nowadays (Gira himself, for instance). But there's something unsettling and unsettled about Shook's take on the genre. You can name several bands that sound like this, but you're not gonna find many that feel like this. My instinct is that the concept has a lot to do with the intensity.

The Great Nostalgic is based on Shook's parents, specifically a turbulent period in their relationship. It's a situation many Texans can relate to: Two individuals grow up and fall in love in a small town, but one partner has grander aspirations than settling down in rural Anytown, USA. This partner feels drawn to the Big City, but the other partner is loyal to the roots of the small town and doesn't want to leave. Unlike, say, a Mars Volta concept album with obscure and nonsensical lyrics that barely hint at a concept, this album illustrates its concept effectively between the lyrics and song titles. Track 2, "The Kingdom", describes returning to the small town from a city that is old and overgrown. Shook's narrator reminisces about the couple's adolescent tribulations: "When we were young, your parents took you from me," he sings with a vocal style that's likely to please fans of Okkervil River, Arcade Fire, or The Killers. The song's chorus almost reaches Trail of Dead levels of grandiosity with its crashing guitars and big cymbal hits. In the song "Fire Brigade", the partner who remained in the small town wonders if city life has changed the other partner. "Do you ever miss the silence? Is the city cold and violent?" Shook asks.

Musically, the songs on The Great Nostalgic range in style from post-punk to dance-rock to dark piano balladry to serene folksy pop. Somehow, it all manages to gel and not sound confused. The methodical album opener "Grace" is the perfect mood-setter, with its simple yet evocative piano line and dual, ghostlike vocals from Shook and JoBeth Cox [CORRECTION: Those high notes are actually Shook's as well]. Meanwhile, "Fire Brigade" and "House of My Father" are moody-yet-uptempo and highly danceable. Moody is a good word for this album as a whole. It has a haunted, ethereal disposition that might make it hard to stomach for some, but I wouldn't consider this album a downer. It sounds celebratory at times. Overall, The Great Nostalgic's debut is an intense, cohesive, and layered album that rewards multiple listens.

Sample track: "The Kingdom"


Check out The Great Nostalgic on MySpace for more songs and show dates.


The Peen Scene said...

wow, I need to check this album out. nice review.