On first listen, Film School’s debut was exactly the kind of album that reaffirms my belief that “indie rock” is simply a catch-all for pretentious musicians to hide the fact that they can’t sing or play well. There’s something about Brilliant Career that lends itself to the inscrutable, often infuriating extremes of the pop and rock genres that I locate squarely in the idea of the drone. While “American Turnip” starts the album off on the right foot, swelling from a slow guitar chord backed by ocean-like keyboards into a fuller, fuzzy sound and then back again, it also sets in motion the irritation to follow: the song dissolves at the end into a cacophony that makes a mess of the melody and finally descends to a buzz-drone-hum.
Generally, I’d be willing to accept this as a statement, especially given the fact that the track is instrumental. The story crescendos almost violently and then collapses. Good storytelling through sound. But that buzzing. That buzzing becomes the one recurrent theme throughout the album. “American Turnip” is followed quickly by “Not About a Girl”, a dirge-like song that shows off the combination slow-core/shoegazer pop that is at the heart of Film School. Yet what could be simply a slow song with poetic lyrics and some fine guitar work is muddled by the droning buzz. It fuzzes the edges of the song, like a bad Photoshop filter, and leaves the listener agitated. The buzz consumes the attention to the point that it becomes difficult to focus on the lyrics, or the waltzing melody. Or is that the point?
This is, after all, more of a musical project than a band. Film School is the brainchild of Krayg Burton, a San Francisco musician with a penchant for homemade music and with connections to a lot of other bands. At various points on Brilliant Career, Burton is joined by Scott Kannberg (Pavement), Kyle Statham (Fuck), Mauri Skinfill (Glitter Mini 9) and others to flesh out his sound. The various interactions of the musicians create different sounds and textures from track to track, and the emotive force of these tunes is less in their relation to traditional song structure than it is in the layering of vocals and sound to create compositions. Film School’s sound might waver between shoegazer, dream pop, or even post-rock, but no matter the sound structure, there is a heavy mixture of experimentalism and dedication to melody that produces interesting results.
The real pleasure of Film School comes out upon repeated listens, as with much experimental music. The first half of the album might be another rock album drenched in waves of distortion, coming in as a cross between new Radiohead and old Sonic Youth. At other times, it has the quiet soulfulness of an Ocean Blue (“Watch You Drink”). You just have to take the time to familiarize yourself with the disparate elements. But like new Radiohead, there is always the possibility of alienating the listener too early on. “American Turnip”, “Not About a Girl”, “Ume’s Lament”, and “Introduced” will probably pass any “indie” fan’s muster. But then things seem to fall apart and slip back towards pretension.
Brilliant Career might be closer to OK Computer than to Kid A or Amnesiac, but it has its wearying moments and its lo-fi production will probably ensure that it won’t be considered a classic must-own. Not that the brilliant underwater calliope of “Road to the Sunchairs” doesn’t have its own certain charm, but it does begin the point at which Brilliant Career seems to strive a bit too hard for its own unique territory at the expense of its pop underpinnings. Sincerity slips away and Film School starts to sound a bit more like goofy pop-rock built from sloppy musical doodles.
After giving Film School a chance to impress me by suspending my disbelief, I realized that there is a lot to admire about the band. Brilliant Career isn’t an easy listen on the first spin, but time and persistence worked to disprove my initial theory. The buzz-and-drone approach lets up from time to time, and while much “indie rock” still falls into the lack-of-ability camp, Film School does not. Rather, this is a project of musicians interested in creating music that defies such simple generalities and should be explored as such.