Where Pragmatists Fear to Tread
When Erin Hucke reviewed The Atari Star’s debut EP, Moving in the Still Frame) for PopMatters about a year ago, the focus was on the visual elements of The Atari Star’s music. With their first full-length album, Shrp Knf Cts Mtns, there is definitely a move to the auditory. Even the song titles on their sophomore release move away from the picturesque imagery of earlier songs like “All Lit Up Like a Sad Little Christmas Tree”. Now Marc Ruvolo and company have moved more towards words and phrases, thoughts that complement the poetry of both instruments and lyrics.
Shrp Knf Cts Mtns continues The Atari Star’s tradition of crafting perfect yet simple pop songs. All of the songs on this album have a stripped-down quality that seems to indicate a low-fi production. In fact, the production on Shrp Knf Cts Mtns is carefully controlled, focusing on bringing out the acoustic element of the instruments involved, even the electric guitar. This gives the resonance of Timothy Rich’s relaxed bass and Davey Houle’s quiet tempo drums a chance to drive the rhythm without having to compete against a wall of guitars. Ruvolo’s combined electric and acoustic guitar playing, which at times is as understated as plucking a few notes out, sounds at other times like a street-corner musician, adding to the garage-like sound but also adding layers of subtle texture that would be lost in more forceful mixing and production.
Musically, however, it is probably the “guest” musicians on the album who really help give The Atari Star the combined effect of being both sweeping and subdued. Mike Perkins, of Sig Transit Gloria, shows up here again as he did on Moving in the Still Frame. His light touch with the acoustic piano gives the songs a rich, beautiful complexity that is vaguely reminiscent of a laid-back Ben Folds Five, especially given Marc Ruvolo’s whisper-speak or fragile high-range vocals. This is most evident on “Small Anthem”, with its hushed verses and soaring “la da da da” harmony chorus. Additional piano work from Sevillesdote keeps the tracks from being too similar to one another. On the album’s instrumental title track, the acoustic piano is doubled up with a Rhodes piano to wonderful effect, while on other tracks a Hammond B3 or Hammond M3 adds some electricity to the mix. With the final addition of Susan Porada’s soulful violin (the closing track, “Archipelago”, is a must-hear), Ruvolo has managed to fill out The Atari Star’s sound without sacrificing their minimalist core.
Yet, for all their musical brilliance, The Atari Star would be half the band they are without Ruvolo’s contribution of thoughtful and subtle lyrics. Each song is intimate, but rather than telling short stories as obvious as most standard pop offerings, this collection asks questions and posits thoughts and ideas that work themselves out through imagery and the poetry of language. Possibly the best song on the album, “Someone More Deserving Than Myself”, a dense, deep combo of acoustic guitar, organ, and percussion, is filled with the wonderful chorus, “The first leaves spiral from tree branch / To the hungry ground / A selfish clockwork companion / So tightly wound / And gravity colludes in silence / With the icy wind / So humble within the framework / So free of sin”. While Ruvolo’s lyrics tend toward the obtuse, they never come across as pedantic or pretentious. Instead, they work their way through the notes of the music and invite subjective interpretation of their inner landscapes.
If this review makes it seem like The Atari Star can do no wrong, that’s because in some sense it’s true. While their careful and often sedate form of pop might not resonate well with those who like harder, faster and louder music to fuel their fires, the dedication to their aesthetic is matched only by the skill with which they pull it off. Marc Ruvolo should be proud to submit his band as a contender against any of the bands he’s helped produce. The Atari Star is a brilliant, shining orb of power and subtle beauty.