By Brian Burlage, Daily Arts Writer
Published August 25, 2014
If you’ve ever been to South Jersey, you know that the pinelands near the Delaware River are filled with myth. The tract of land stretches 95 miles from New York City to Philadelphia, and everywhere in between there are forests, salt marshes and swamps. The land is low and thick with dark foliage, which, at night when the land’s only light source is corralled by roadside lamps, brood an even darker aura.
Cymbals Eat Guitars
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Cymbals Eat Guitars’ frontman Joseph D’Agostino spent many years driving through that terrain as he made frequent trips north to New York. LOSE opens with “Jackson”, a piano-fueled ballad that reflects on those isolative drives and alludes to the Ramapough Mountain Indians, a tribe of bandits and thieves that once roamed those same South Jersey coastlands. The track is, like D’Agostino’s automotive trek, haunted with imagery and sounds of ghost-like entities, embodied in high-pitch outstretches of guitar and whooshing piano triads. Its moodiness establishes a brave step forward from the ‘90s rock of Why There Are Mountains and the spread-eagle psychedelia of Lenses Alien: this is a more simplistic approach to indie rock, one that sutures together a visceral and honest portrait of loss, that is, the loss of D’Agostino’s childhood friend Benjamin High.
While LOSE is defined by that emotional weight of a friend’s passing, it doesn’t use gloom or anguish as ways to achieve influence. Instead, the band tempers their state of mourning with memory, and they recreate specific events and places with such vividness, such intensity, that the album feels like a time capsule buried beneath New Jersey soil, still rollicking with life. “And you’re looking mighty ghostly/Just like Bowie on Soul Train,” D’Agostino sings of his deceased friend on “Warning.” The track overflows with random recollections, from rooftop shenanigans to porch conversations to birthdays, as a sequence of minor guitar chords takes wistful flight. “Warning” was the first song written for the album, and its mercurial memory outpour bleeds throughout. In reflecting so heavily on such a personal level, D’Agostino sustains a kind of vigor on LOSE, a soulful splendor previously untapped by the band.
“XR”, for example, can hardly contain its storminess and enthusiasm. In an eruption of clashes, clangs and clumps, the band takes a classic pop-rock sound and douses it with piss and vinegar. They add a touch of harmonica, and the result is Neil Young’s one-time dream collaboration with the Dead Kennedys. “Wanna wake up wanting to listen to records/But those old feelings elude me/I raise a toast to the rock’n’roll ghost,” bites D’Agostino with appropriate flare. “XR” is standard evidence that sometimes noise, absent of any melody or harmony, is all it takes to electrify the soul. “Chambers” and “LifeNet” reinforce this notion on the album’s back half, and together these songs gear D’Agostino’s explosiveness toward a balanced optimism.
Producer John Agnello counteracts the album’s riotous anthems with a few slower, more deliberate tracks, the most atypical of them being “Child Bride” (I wonder if Win Butler didn’t have a hand in the instrumentation). “Child Bride” unfolds in three-and-a-half minutes of acoustic guitar, piano, patient drum shuffling and – wouldn’t you believe it – strings. As a violin pulls quiet frequencies from the air, echoed by a repeating flicker of piano keys, D’Agostino reflects on abusive homes and the devastating impact that abuse has on children (inspired by the actual accounts of another childhood friend). With Agnello’s airy, Kurt Vile-like expansion of the sound, we as listeners are given our own space within the song’s framework and are free to react and improvise our thought however we see fit. The album’s longest track, “Laramie”, which follows “Child Bride” and clocks in at 8 minutes, takes our input, embarks on a midnight trip to the North Pole and swizzles the Aurora Borealis with our dizzy heads. “Laramie” musically unwinds a lot like “…And the Hazy Sea” (from the band’s debut) only with one essential difference: these are now real places, events and people being celebrated. With their work on LOSE, Cymbals Eat Guitars are beginning to create myths of their own.
Walt Whitman – a great mythmaker himself – once wrote, “Perhaps the best of songs heard, or of any and all true love, or life’s fairest episodes … is the résumé of them, or of any of them, long afterwards, looking at the actualities away back past, with all their practical excitations gone.” Uncle Walt certainly strikes the right vein here, especially since memory is a faulty, if not completely arbitrary, device. With all original and “practical excitations” of a memory vanished, we often supply our own. Cymbals Eat Guitars has constructed an album doing just that: galvanizing people and places long since passed with a funny kind of life of their own.