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All Theory and No Action

(Has Anyone Ever Told You; US: 30 Nov 2004; UK: Available as import)

Building Nothing Out of Something

Egon’s gonna party like it’s 1997.

Egon is like a younger brother of Built of Spill and Modest Mouse, circa Perfect From Now On and The Lonesome Crowded West respectively, sent down to Austin for adoption before it had time to completely absorb the mathematically fractured nuances of Pacific Northwest’s rural rock. Egon’s fourth full-length in eight years, All Theory and No Action, is full of ‘90s Pacific Northwest trademarks: songs that stretch and shift, not restlessly, but with an assuming calculation; clean guitars that spit and splatter algebraic and geometrically sound chord changes; music that rejects the commonplace verse-chorus-verse formula for a more challenging exploitation of, say, “logical improvisation”.

What both Built to Spill and Modest Mouse understand (and fully realized on Keep It Like a Secret and The Moon and Antarctica) is that no amount of reason-bending chord molestation can beat a good hook. Egon seems to either overlook or disregard this important element in its own songs. The melodies and chord structures are so snaking and utterly complicated, pieced back together post-fracture, that they elude memorization. In fact, All Theory and No Action has a tendency to blend into one long jam, especially where so many of its songs run upwards of five or six minutes. Without the aid of something infectious, All Theory and No Action becomes hard to distinguish or penetrate, instead creating the illusion that you’ve been listening to the same twisting, fluctuating song for 30—or even 70—minutes.

To the band’s credit, it doesn’t take the easy way out when it comes to song construction. The drum rhythms (like the martial shuffles on “Desired Leftovers”) rarely drive home the beat, instead bobbing and weaving and tracing circles round themselves. Non-linear chords are laboriously arranged into linear progressions. The multiple guitar tracks trail in and around one another, choosing to spiral through arpeggios and perpendicular dogfights rather than bang prosaically on typically chord formations. And though the lyrics are often the stuff of uncapped emotion, the music is scientifically plotted with logic, not heart.

If the music itself is an echo of the Northwest’s recent past, Egon’s lyrics act like an enforced resistance; the two halves play a 70-minute tug-of-war that never results in any sort of symbiosis. Far from musing on teeth like God’s shoeshine or Randy describing eternity, All Theory and No Action attempts to invert clichés and succeeds only in reinforcing them. The extent of Egon’s wordplay exists in lines like “Your smile is like sunshine / After a hurricane” and “You have good genes / And nice tight jeans” (“Tina Lizardo”), “Every dog has its day / And every day has its dog” (“Stitches”), and “You can’t kill time no matter how sharp your sword is / So keep stabbing” (“On Thin Ice”). These lyrics only contribute to the album’s larger failure, as they don’t meet the brainy, convoluted expectations set by the music’s jigsawed arrangements.

It’s hard to figure Egon out. Even after multiple spins of All Theory and No Action, I was left feeling both overwhelmed and mystified. There doesn’t seem to be anything tangible to hold onto, nothing but a series of numbers that evade any sort of recognizable pattern. If one were to dig deep into Egon’s brain, avoiding the pale lyrics that operate like a slippery deterrent, I’m not sure that any sense could be made. Because although it strains to reach the heights set by its brothers-in-logic-rock, All Theory and No Action is a never-ending math equation where solutions and resolutions are fuzzy concepts, always out of reach.


Zeth Lundy has been writing for PopMatters since 2004. He is the author of Songs in the Key of Life (Continuum, 2007), and has contributed to the Boston Phoenix, Metro Boston, and The Oxford American. He lives in Boston.

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