Whatever you do, don’t listen to this album on your car stereo.
I made that mistake for my first listen and I thought it was pretty junky—low-fi, loose, practically falling apart at the seams. Sure enough, after another, much closer listen, it’s still all of those things. But somehow, with the headphones wrapped tightly around my head, there’s a lot more here as well. There’s structure and form and beautiful melody rising from the chaotic shambles of these extremely raw recordings, enough meaning and beauty to satisfy even the hardiest indie-pop purists.
Emperor X is Chad Matheny. You might (or might not) remember Matheny as the bass player for the Cadets. You might have heard some of his previous recordings under the Emperor X moniker, ranging back as far as 1998, but probably not. No, Matheny has been under most people’s radar for the bulk of his career, but there’s a very good chance that Tectonic Membrane / Thin Strip on an Endless Platform will change this. At least, if he doesn’t get some indie success out of this release, it won’t be the fault of these wonderful songs.
As is often the case with one-man-bands, Matheny’s recordings revel in the kind of shambolic, slightly out-of-time arrangements that reflect the aesthetic preoccupations of the willfully self-indulgent. But the difference between Emperor X and your average multi-track hero is the fact that Matheny knows how to write some delicious songs. There is some degree of self-indulgence in the way he presents his material, but if you can get past the exultantly low-fi presentation, you’re likely to find at least a few songs that you just can’t get out of your head.
He owes a lot to Modest Mouse in terms of his presentation, but if this album had been released ten years earlier the obvious touchstone would be They Might Be Giant’s early low-fi recordings, the stuff of their self-titled debut and the follow-up Lincoln. There’s a similar sense of invention and revelation here, of improbably precocious songwriting talents radiating impossibly intricate melody lines covered with witty lyrics like barnacles on the bow of a schooner.
Oddly, the album kicks off with one of the weakest tracks, “Exterminata Beat”, which rides a lovingly minimal laptop beat towards a crescendo that never arrives. But he starts putting off sparks soon after, with the one-two punch of “Laminate Factory” and “Filene’s Basement”. The former showcases some of Matheny’s best lyrics over a subtly building guitar line, while the latter has one of the most amazing pop harmony choruses I’ve heard since Rumors-era Flettwood Mack. But Matheny has the gall to cut “Filene’s Basement” short after a mere one minute and forty-three seconds. If that doesn’t tip you off as to just what type of mad genius we’re dealing with here, nothing will.
The first fully-formed masterpiece on the album is “Bashling”, a mopey shoegazer ballad with just a hint of alt-country that builds and builds to a wonderful cathartic release. Imagine the Super Furry’s “Run Christian Run” compressed into less than four minutes and sung by a mumbling four-year old . . . or something like that.
“Florencia Tropicana” sounds like it might be the most obvious college radio hit, with a subtle hard rock guitar melody set over the same homemade beats as “Exterminata Beat”. “Constantly Constantly Radio’s On” is the album’s most straight-up rocker, featuring a low-fi take on the same kind of satisfying alternative rock practiced by folks like Yo La Tengo.
Of course, an album like this would be nothing without a couple of obligatory instrumentals. “Unworthiness Drones” is the album’s most self-indulgent moment, with almost three minutes of pounding drums and weird guitar noises punctuated, oddly enough, by a nice piano intro and a hardcore gabber outro. “Intracellular” is the album’s centerpiece, however, an eight and a half minute exercise in ghostly guitar melodies and simple keyboard arpeggios that eventually builds to a frighteningly numinous climax.
“Garbage Shaft Floor-by-Floor” picks up right after “Intracellular” leaves off, with a glorious raging power pop movement that would sound at home on the catchiest pop-rock radio station if it didn’t sound as if it had been recorded at the bottom of a coal mine. The album ends, as these things often do, with the anticlimactic one-two punch of “I Want a Baby / Pre-Exterminata”. The first part of the track is a melancholy, if slightly, silly bit about how it’s not good to have a baby in the summertime, while the second half segues into the same dinky samba beat that began the album eleven tracks previous.
I’ll be honest, I’m not your average indie snob. I can appreciate low-fi but there’s also a part of me that sees this kind of willful and strident primitivism as a sign of obstinate recalcitrance. When the songs are this good, you don’t want to have to work for it. I don’t doubt that if he can write material this good on a regular basis, he could easily step into the upper-echelon of indie rock superstars without breaking a sweat. But the low-fi thing isn’t going to endear him to anybody outside a very small circle of intimates.
Tectonic Membrane / Thin Strip on an Endless Platform isn’t a masterpiece. It’s a bit scattered, a bit purposefully obtuse. But there’s a kernel of something great here. This could either be the De Stijl of a new phenomenon, or merely another great record from an unfortunately obscure songwriting savant. You choose.