The band comprises ex-marrieds (uh oh) Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, stalwarts of the Portland indie scene. They’ve appeared in Motorgoat together and variously appeared with Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Built To Spill, Bright Eyes, Heatmiser, The Go-Betweens, Pink Mountain, Blues Goblins, The Takeovers and Jandek.
As if that wasn’t enough baggage to bring to the making of American Gong, this is their eighth album; each of their works has represented some kind of experiment into what the two can come up with next.
What the two have come up with next is a new member and a sort of hillbilly Pixies for children, or perhaps a grunge starter kit for Polyphonic Spree fans.
Opener Repulsion and Everything And Nothing At All are full of sludgy guitars and pleasingly chord-corrupting string bending, starting with grungey murkiness and giving it a bluesy tinge, but any interesting musical development is hidden behind the tweeness of the vocals. Coomes and Weiss share the melodies in tones of such extreme Americanism that they sound like summer camp team leaders.
On Death Is Not The End, a maudlin guitar line is splattered with violins to create the essence of a horror movie Hicksville funeral procession, over which Coomes occasionally sings in a pretty, vulnerable high register which hints that he could actually sing in a genuinely melodious fashion if he wanted to.
But he clearly doesn’t. Moreover, he has an incredibly annoying habit of throwing away the last word of a line, speaking it instead of singing it, sounding like a primary school teacher reading out a poem.
This effect is compounded continuously by simplistic rhyming couplets that don’t make any sense or create any effect or mood. Bye Bye Blackbird is just The Beatles-cum-Nirvana, cod-psychedelic lyrics about octopuses up trees plonked over quiet-bit/heavy-bit; vocals-at-the-beginning bit/drawn out, feedback heavy, noise in the middle bit/twee vocals at the end bit. It’s Drain You with even more pointless lyrics, sung by Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee.
Big, crescendoing guitar solos layered with all sorts of interesting textural effects, and tight, bright drumming make it really obvious that these two do know what they’re doing. It’s just that sometimes, as in on Now What, what they are doing is knocking up a substandard Where Is My Mind and singing like they’re round a campfire.
Black Dogs And Bubbles continues a theme of the title being the first words of the song, meandering quickly into other words with equal amounts of meaning, giving the impression that titles, lyrics, melodies and solos have been picked out of a hat.
The final two songs up the ante further. Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouller sees Coombes singing in French, without making the slightest effort to mould his oracular Americana around the unfamiliar vowel sounds. The last song is a dog howling; possibly an imitation of what Frank Black thinks of Now What. Perhaps it’s an analogy of how the beleaguered listener should be left feeling. Maybe it’s a recording of the ex-couple’s dog when they played it American Gong.
On to experiment nine, then.