[21 October 2010]
PopMatters Music Editor
At the crossroads of post-rock, noise-pop, and world music, Mice Parade has made its niche where indie becomes eclectic. So when you notice that Mice Parade describes itself as “flamenco” in addition to “shoegaze” on its MySpace page, it’s not done so with tongue in cheek: Band mastermind Adam Pierce is the kind of adventurous experimenter who probably wants to incorporate every sound and instrument he hears into Mice Parade’s mix, be it a strummy acoustic guitar, intricate polyrhythmic percussion or perfectly executed white-noise feedback. It’s Pierce’s use of all these elements and more that speak to the strengths and weaknesses of the group’s latest album, What It Means to Be Left-Handed, which is wonderfully open-minded at points, but frustratingly unfocused at others. While Pierce’s fine-tuned ear and sweet tooth for miscellany can inspire admiration, the intriguing parts don’t always congeal into a whole, as Mice Parade often seems to opt for sounds over songs.
When you first hear What It Means to Be Left-Handed, it’s almost as if Mice Parade is trying to hit the Afropop trifecta alongside Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors, though Pierce appears more interested in the finer points of composition than in creating perfect pop gems, as his more acclaimed counterparts aim for. In effect, the first two tracks “Kupanda” and “In Between Times” do for world music what post-rock did for cheesy jazz and prog, trying to make their inspiration relevant, but not wholly succeeding in selling it convincingly, either. While the delicate guitar picking, authentic Senegalese kora, and plump percussion of “Kupanda” create a pleasant, laid-back vibe, the leadoff number almost gives the wrong idea of the album as a whole, coming off more like an African music sampler than a counterpart to, say, Bitte Orca. Or maybe that’s exactly the impression that Mice Parade wants to make, since many of the early tracks have a similar feel to them. “In Between Times”, the album’s first single, might find itself more at ease in an indie comfort zone with its coating of reverb haze and its electronics tinged crescendos, but these dynamics seem to be in an odd tension with the organic guitars and Caroline Lufkin’s almost new-agey banshee-like vocals.
Nothing typifies the all-over-the-place results of Pierce’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach more than the album’s most compelling epic, “Couches and Carpets”. At once, it’s saddled with the baggage of what some listeners might expect from world music, while also giving shape to the wonderful possibilities of cross-breeding different vernaculars. Beginning with what seems almost like an Andean arrangement, “Couches and Carpets”, initially at least, doesn’t sound too far removed from what one might hear at a multi-culti festival—at least to the untrained ear—what with its intro of fierce, frenetic acoustic guitars. But towards the end, the distorted feedback in the background makes itself noticed, providing a play in contrasting moods and textures you wouldn’t have guessed was coming until it does. It’s then that Mice Parade becomes a global-pop version of the Delgados to stunning effect, striking just the right chord through the unlikely combo of resonant flamenco flourishes, jazzy tropicalia panache, and all-encompassing shoegaze effects. Maybe it’s missing the same element of surprise when it comes around a few tracks later, but “Recover” takes the winning formula of “Couches and Carpets” and runs with it, starting deliberately with picked guitars and hand-tapped rhythms, only to give way to a louder, sloppier, and faster arrangement played on electric guitars.
At points on What It Means to Be Left-Handed, you get the sense that there might just be a prolific straight-up indie band that’s waiting to break out of the eclectic mix. A country-rock tune with a little giddy-up, the Lemonheads cover “Mallo Cup” shows off an appealing sense of urgency that’s more direct than anything else on What It Means. But both “Mallo Cup” and the nice ditty “Even” feel like they end a little too abruptly, almost as if Pierce didn’t quite know what to do with songs missing all the bells and whistles. It’s only on the scuffed-up closing duet “Mary Anne”, itself a cover of Fat Cat labelmate Tom Brosseau, that Pierce gives his indie instincts room to breathe, editing out some of the frills and embellishments to create a more immediate effect that hits with greater emotional impact.
For better or worse, it seems like Mice Parade would rather not do things the easy way. In the end, it’s not on Pierce’s shoulders what those with limited exposure to more diverse musical idioms know or don’t know, though it can be difficult discerning what’s an interesting play on those forms and what can seem like a hackneyed version of the original. If anything, that’s actually as good a case as any to make for what Mice Parade’s ambitions.