Click to hear: “Pattern”
French Toast is intriguing, and for me the allure starts with the name. Spend a minute or two reflecting on your own associations with French toast, and I think you’ll be hard-pressed to land on a less likely name to attach to this music. On the other hand, the title of French Toast’s latest release, In a Cave, is spot-on. It seems that James Canty and Jerry Busher spend plenty of time in a rather airless den, getting better and better at executing severe, elemental music. Theirs is an interesting marriage of DIY intent and technical prowess. Busher and Canty can play, yet there’s little sense of play in the finished work. Instead there’s urgency, angst, and control. Given their pedigrees in bands like the Make-Up and Fugazi, it’s no surprise this duo have a talent for nifty hooks and rhythms: they can churn, they can jab, they can hurtle, and they know just how to enjamb a line.
With a few notable exceptions, the songs on In a Cave are short, coiled and tense; tightly played and closely miked. The arrangements are spare – bass and some form of drums are always present, and most songs add either guitar or keyboard tracks. Nearly every song uses a minor key and a single voice (Canty and Busher swap vocals as well as instruments), and the singing is usually either clenched or plaintive. For me, the greatest pleasures lay in the riffs and rhythms of the stringed instruments, and in the rigorous shaping of the compositions. In fact, on several delightful occasions I had that rare sense of surprise when a song was over. Here, as on Wire’s Pink Flag, there’s an implicit sense that padding songs is heresy – as if the musicians’ attitude is: We have nothing more to say on this, so we’re OUT. Up-tempo tracks like “Float Away” and “Pattern” have a thrust that brings to mind bands like Bailtor Space, or a less histrionic Mission of Burma.
Yet despite the abundance of short songs, you might grow increasingly enervated by the limitations of the voices and words as the album moves along. There’s almost no release from austere melody, anguished tone (“Why does it hurt so bad?”) or self-defeat (“Every day I wake up to psychic death”), or from standard-issue lyrics like “I’ve been round and round on this track” and “the modern fray.” Maybe that’s the key to the band’s name – like Joy Division, French Toast is willing to let their name be a twisted joke on a bleak vision of the human condition. In any case, each time I listen to this record I find myself wanting to get these talented men library cards, or passes to the beach, or, at the very least, some light therapy.
Just short of midway through In a Cave, you might wonder if this is as much aproject as it is a band. Clearly these two accomplished musicians are compelled by the challenge – the implicit limitations – of making music by themselves. I’m eager to see how they approach live performance. Will they use prerecorded sound of any sort? And how will they handle the unpredictability of playing before a bunch of living people who can’t help but affect the room tone?
French Toast performs Wed., March 22, at Space Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland, at 8:30 p.m. Tix: $8 (18+). The Portland band Phantom Buffalo is also on the bill. For more info, call 828-5600, or visit space538.org.
Click to hear: “Raising the Sparks“
This split CD on Michael Gira’s Young Gods label features seven tracks by Brooklyn’s Akron/Family (akronfamily.com). I’m new to this band, and it’s been interesting to listen to them in juxtaposition with the work of French Toast. Akron/Family brings together an abundance of ideas and enthusiasm, and the music has real sweep. They are interested in complexity and density, not spareness. Songs feel like compositions, with sections stitched together in surprising and sometimes sneaky ways. As opposed to the cave, this is music of the meadow, of open windows, of the gale lashing the ledge. You may be reminded of any number of bands from the ’60s and ’70s (a few lush vocal passages evoked for me the artful, pastoral splendor of the Pretty Things), as well as a few modern outfits with a similar fondness for the rear-view mirror. Akron/Family delights in having digested a feast of rock, and they put this knowledge to use with assurance.
The band often starts from a simple or gentle place that serves as a platform for the shifts in tone, tempo, and style that follow. The curtain-raiser, “Awaken,” begins with warm, quiet guitars that use a progression of minor and seventh chords to create an unhurried, electric-folk atmosphere. Then voices wash over center stage. Akron/Family uses vocals – sometimes a single voice, but more often two or more voices in harmony or unison – as a central instrument capable of sounding rich, svelte, sophisticated, untidy and funny, as needed. The lyrics are wry (“sad that we have to grow old / catalogue stuff from the phone”), self-referential (“now we sit and share our songs / balls of light we pass along”), or oblique (“future myth, stories of the present when they’re past”), but almost always poetic.
“Awaken” ends with a guitar note languishing in the slightly troubled air. Then the band unleashes a 50-second skronk attack that gives way to the first lurching verse of “Moment,” in which a handful of the guys holler a simple melody from across the room. The effect of coil and release is tangible. After this section dissolves into a drone-y wave of voices singing “ahhhhh,” yet another patch dawns – this one with sinuous, tightly played guitar and bass lines that will bring a smile to those who recall Howe and Squire’s symbiotic, propulsive riffs, or the twin guitars of the two Turners in Wishbone Ash. These bars are fastened to yet another passage, one that features a quickly strummed acoustic and thin, sweet figures played up the neck of an electric.
As with some of the prog bands that Akron/Family conjures, the group embodies a spirit of virtuosity and ambition that underpins the cascades of sound. This urge reaches its acme in “Future Myth,” which loads an array of thrills into 8 minutes and 11 seconds: shifting dynamics, lyricism, melancholy, sheen, and towering, anthemic riffs – not to mention key and time changes. As you may have gathered, Akron/Family almost never stops asking to be taken seriously. From time to time – in a song like “Oceanside,” for example – this sense of earnestness and profundity serves them less well. Unrelieved by stinging guitars, throaty keys, or drums, this woody meditation on innocence puzzled me – are they playing naive folk bliss for real, or did I miss the wink? The compilation’s closer, “Raising the Sparks,” presents the band in its freest form. The track is a raving-rural-mystical-stomp hybrid that allows the collective to open the throttle and shriek. It’s a surprise ending to a collection of songs that contains numerous treats and tricks.
— David Pence
Akron/Family performs on Tues., March 28, at Space Gallery, with Jackie-O Motherfucker and Sir Richard Bishop.