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Bound Stems

Appreciation Night

(Flameshovel; US: 19 Sep 2006; UK: 25 Sep 2006)

Slacker math rock only seems like a contradiction in terms

Chicago’s Bound Stems made their mark earlier this year with an EP called The Logic of Building the Body Plan, four complicated and effervescent songs intercut with disturbing recorded conversations and found sound intervals.  Their full-length expands on this promising start, bringing the same odd mix of joyous pop exuberance, musical difficulty and fuzzily layered real-world sounds. 


That said, Appreciation Night is not a significant advance.  The full-length’s two best songs—“Wake Up Ma and Pa Are Gone” and “Living Life for the Coupon”—were also on the EP.  They sound just as good here, with their urgent strum and drum backing at odds with slurred and casually voiced lyrics.  There’s an inherent conflict between the post-rockish, post-punkish urgency in the music and the sly, meandering intelligence of the singing that makes the songs interesting.  When they explode, as “Wake Up” does just after the three-minute mark, it’s a pure hedonistic pleasure.


As with the EP, the band inserts brief spoken word intervals between and sometimes within songs.  There’s a bit of Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan lodged in the soft longing verses of “Rented a Tent (a Tent, a Tent)”, and “Book of Baby Names,” with its litany of female monikers draws on a Thax Douglas poem and a novel by C. M. Shea.  The very brief, oddly lovely “Pulling on Pigtails” cuts and pastes shards of female singing with male mutters over a breathily percussive background; it was crafted from recorded fragments by producer Tim Sandusky. 


The albums’ themes, as far as they can be discerned, seem to be typical Gen Y loving and drifting, dead end jobs and making ends meet.  “Excellent News, Colonel” starts with a honey-voiced, female singer performing a Dear John letter, explaining how she’s met someone in New York and hoping that the ex-love will continue to write.  It dissolves into the male perspective, a muttering, tense rant that seems to have nothing to do with the earlier section, as if the two are talking but not really communicating. 


There’s not quite as much emphasis on poverty as on the EP, but “Western Biographic”, one of the best new songs, does touch on the subject in a five or six line short story that runs like this: “Mama put some water in the milk for us to drink/ So that we won’t notice/ My brother came home with some food he’d stolen from a man/ And said he’d worked for it/ My father said that we don’t steal/ And pulled him from his chair/ And he gave it back/we all went to bed without a sound/ Without a sound/without a sound.”


But even when the songs don’t cohere around a recognizable story line—most of the time—the lyrics contain interesting twists and insights.  It’s hard to imagine a better evocation of 20-something optimism than “This is Grand”‘s observation that “It’ll all work out/ We’re hanging upside down/ Existing by default.”  Yes, and do you want fries with that?

That’s the charm of the album, really.  It invokes a time of life where close friends, boundless optimism, books, art and music make up for crappy jobs and aimless relationships, where vulnerable observations inevitably explode into fractured rounds of guitar.  Moods change as fast as time signatures here, images spill out in discontinuous abundance, and pop music is both the question and the answer.  It’s loosely strung and sketchily put together, but go with it.  You never know what’s going to happen next.

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