[25 February 2008]
The Air Salesman will likely find a home on many a year’s best list, and deservedly so. Of all the bands who have enlisted in the current post-punk/New Wave revival, the Selmanaires might be the only ones who peered into the past and saw anything of use that predated recent indie darlings like the Strokes. Listening to The Air Salesmen, you suspect that browsing through the Selmanaires’ record collection would yield angular, arty treasures from the likes of Television, Can, the Talking Heads, and Roxy Music. Well-worn copies at that.
The signs were there on the band’s debut, 2005’s Here Come the Selmanaires. In raw form, the band showed their love of these influences even as their youth took them all over the place. Here Come the Selmanaires intrigued not for the group’s breadth of influences, but for the way they didn’t let those influences confine them. So you had the staccato rock of “All I Really Want to Know”, slow-building instrumentals like “Devil’s Note”, the reggae splash of “High Tide”, and the wiry garage rock of “LMN06” all coexisting in a big guitar-stirred post-punk stew. It sounded as if, square in the kiln of Atlanta’s Southern heat, the Selmanaires might have been crafting themselves into the jittery American counterpart to the rootsy free-for-all of Gomez.
The Air Salesmen turns that notion on its head. Gone is the wild, upfront eclecticism of their debut. Or rather, that eclecticism is now embedded as finely-tuned flourishes in the band’s suddenly focused sound. Just as the album’s title is an anagram for the band’s name, their new approach is really a tweaking of what was already there. A standout track like “Nite Beat”, for example, with its needly guitar patterns and vocals straight from the Bryan Ferry school, also features tasty little reggae guitar flourishes that would never have been silky-smooth enough for Roxy Music. In fact, the brooding delicacy of album closer “Long Road” and the frenetic thrash of “Just to Get Yr Love” might be the last bastions of that initial stylistic abandon. This time around, the Selmanaires opt for a more cohesive approach that finds them working to turn their well-chosen influences into something all their own. “Verdigris Intrigue”, “A Small Room”, and “Gmafb”, for example, recall the Talking Heads, right down to the clipped David Byrne singing style. It’s obvious that when the Selmanaires sat down to watch Stop Making Sense, they actually took time to get into the head of the man dancing around in the Big Suit. But “A Small Room” and “Gmafb” throw a lot more of themselves onto the dancefloor than the Talking Heads ever did.
The Air Salesmen overflows with mimicry of the highest order, but it all sounds like sincere homage instead of shameless lifting. In the end, the Selmanaires do end up refining their sound, carving out a ledge for themselves near the top of the New-New Wave mountain. They’re just that good. The whole affair brings up a few questions, though, as we await the Selmanaires’ inevitable coronation on MTV’s Subterranean. The New Wave revival is already starting to play itself out, so it’s odd to see a band throw themselves so fully into the movement. However, the Selmanaires are pretty obviously true believers, and if The Air Salesmen proves anything, it’s that they may be one of the few bands capable of taking the genre somewhere new.