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City Center

Redeemer

(K; US: 10 May 2011; UK: Import)

Double Aughts Bedroom Rock for the Missionaries

City Center is about as obscure a band as they come. Originally from Michigan, but transplanted to Brooklyn, the group is the duo of Fred Thomas and Ryan Howard who essentially play to the low-fi bedroom rock crowd. They have a self-titled debut that came out in 2009 on the UK ambient-oriented Type Records label, but much of their (apparently prolific) output has been relegated to seven-inch singles, CD-Rs, tapes, and free songs shared on their blog. Now, they’re unleashing their sophomore record, Redeemer, on Calvin Johnson’s K Records, which is actually fitting, as City Center has a somewhat twee, psychedelic sensibility and is, on the surface, the perfect match for that Olympia, Washington, label. Still, even though the band has toured with the likes of such indie stalwarts as Deerhoof and Gang Gang Dance, you get the sense that City Center is the type of group that more or less exists in a vacuum, the type of band making soft, sensual music that isn’t likely going to be embraced by the masses.


For that reason, Redeemer seems like a document that is birthed into this world in a plastic sealed wrapper that you don’t want to break, that this is a record to file on your bookshelf and just gaze at lovingly. However, for those who are adventurous and do break the seal, there’s a direct connection that City Center embodies towards its listener, and Redeemer, which is so named after a street and a church in the duo’s hometown of Ann Arbor, captures the essence of a local band in a tiny city where only a handful of people will bother to show up. In other words, it appears that City Center exchanges ambition for sincerity. The band exists for the individual listener to explore on their own terms, at their own time and leisurely pace. For that reason, music archivists and scholars who want to prove their “indie” and “hipster” credentials—that they love an album and a group that is wilfully unheard of—will probably lap this album up.


It’s a bit hard to review this record, insofar as this is a band that seems to be more inward and hidden that outward and propelling themselves into the pop culture masses. In a sense, City Center are bullet-proof: without much of a shared experience to base the band on, you get the sense that Thomas and Howard are eagerly content to mosey along at their own speed and make music for the sake of making music, without the expectation of anything resembling commercial success. However, Redeemer is an engaging and strong album with tiny melodies, oft times buried vocals, and a hazy sense of consistency and almost four-tracked sense of aesthetics. The guitars chime in the best R.E.M.-esque sense, the songs sometime sprawl into the five and six minute mark here and there, and there’s a gauze of atmospherics buoying many of these tracks. As a whole, there’s an appealing flow to the record, one that makes it difficult to pick out individual songs as highlights. Redeemer is an album that is suited to being background noise, played at low volumes in, well, bedrooms in the early morning light. That’s notwithstanding the point that there’s a song titled “After Hours” on Redeemer, a time period during which the album would be well suited to play, too.


Though there is a lack of a clear-cut stand-out track, there’s much to love and embrace with the individual songs on Redeemer, for the most part. The penultimate track “Soft Marauder” has a giddy, almost world-beat feel and crawls along, slowly propeled with all sorts of echo-y and reverb-y sound effects; a song that you can slowly and sleepily nod your head along to. “Modern Love” starts out with similar echoes processed on its introductory drum track, before the duo explode into an almost Broken Social Scene-esque anthem with vocals recorded in a wind tunnel with the singer at one end of that spectrum and the microphone positioned at the other. “Obvious” starts out with wind chimes softly murmuring to themselves, before some backwards tape looped trickery, strings, and indie rock guitars slowly and softly burble their way up in the mix. “Cookies” starts out with a sound collage as well, with an idiosyncratic bass line muscling its way into the song. And so it goes. The entirety of the album more or less holds up, though the three-minute loopy acoustic guitar sound experiment “Giraffe” is perhaps too long for its own good, and there’s an overall sense of experimentation elsewhere that threatens to sometimes pull these songs down into a mire of muddy noodling.


Still, Redeemer is a catchy album of lo-fi pop gems that come into the world without any weight of expectation whatsoever. It’s a lazy album that you practically swim into or let wash over you and simply enjoy the ambience that the band conjures up. When the band sings “I like you all so much” over and over again as the final refrain of closing track, “Teardrop Children”, you could apply that sentiment to the individual tracks that comprise the bulk of Redeemer. The album is sonically dense, risky, exploratory, and there’s much here to reward listeners who make the decision to surpass their local Wal-Mart when it comes to picking up albums that challenge. Though City Center might be unknown to the general public, they prove with Redeemer they’re a band best suited for those who travel off the beaten path—one that is not easy to ignore. And perhaps that is the most redeeming thing that can be said about this quiet band and their impressive catalogue of material on display here.

Rating:

Zachary Houle is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction, and the recipient of a writing arts grant from the City of Ottawa. He has had journalism published in SPIN magazine, The National Post (Canada), Canadian Business, OttawaShowbox.com and more. He also reviews books for bookwookie.ca.


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