As someone who views the listening experience as a sacred ritual, I’m somewhat leery of the marketing machine behind a work of art. But there’s something interesting about the press kits that accompany new albums: somehow, the thought of a bunch of cats with marketing degrees trying to plot your reaction to a collection of songs is somewhat infuriating. A marketing campaign tries to create the context in which the artist wants to be viewed, from the graphic design to the carefully selected photos. Even the track listing is carefully planned to elicit a very specific reaction and make a positive initial impression; how many times have you made a compilation only to realize three-quarters of the songs are first tracks?
The press kit for Le Chevre’s self-titled debut is one of the more specific ones I’ve seen. It tells you how to pronounce the band’s name (Le “SHEH-vruh”), the members’ names and ages (Michael Barksdale, 25; Mike Gowan, 29), the band’s hometown (Greenville, South Carolina), and even where to find images of the group for press purposes. The most intriguing aspects of the package, however, are the comparisons and descriptions provided for reviewers. The album is described—in red print, no less—as an “unconventional fusion of acoustic textures, synthetic gadgetry and infectious melodies.” Later, the songs are hailed as “absorbing, yet dynamic rock and roll entertainment.” I suppose being dynamic is something you achieve in spite of being absorbing. The print returns to red when Le Chevre is compared to Depeche Mode, Neil Young, The Postal Service, and New Order.
Perhaps I’m cynical, but comparing your first album to the work of Neil Young and New Order borders on hubris. Maybe you could say you were influenced by their work, but to consciously compare your work to such canonized geniuses? That’s arrogance of the W kind. Still, after nearly choking on my own scoffs, I proceeded to listen to Le Chevre’s album for a full week. My thoughts? First, I must say this album is definitely unique. It is an unconventional fusion of acoustic textures and synthetic gadgetry. Barksdale—who handles the vocals, guitars, keyboards, drums, and synthesizers—is forging a sound not many have explored. But Le Chevre only sounds like Neil Young in that it features acoustic guitars. That’s an extremely loose connection. Moreover, Barksdale and Gowan have a long way to go before they create something as infectious and intoxicating as Bernard Sumner and company. You want an honest comparison? If that Wormser kid from Revenge of the Nerds rigged his calculator up to his Casio SK-1 and rocked that sonuvabitch, you’d have the sound of Le Chevre.
Indeed, Le Chevre is very influenced by the technology-obsessed sounds of the early ‘80s. Barksdale and Gowan take it way back, eschewing the hi-fi sounds of the last decade for the self-consciously awkward and angular sounds of the Atari age. Album opener “Everything Reminds Me” starts with a single acoustic strum similar to the opening note of Wilco’s “Sunken Treasure”. This, however, is no folk song. From here all pocket protector hell breaks loose. Guitar notes do the robot, and what sounds like background music for Donkey Kong shuffles around. Barksdale’s lyrics are often insightful, if not touching, such as when he bellows, “All words mean less the more you hear / Nothing goes away with more time / You’ve got new things in your life / And I’ve got more pain”.
It’s this human aspect—that crawls out from under the blips and bells—that hints at Le Chevre’s potential. “Dead for Years” begins with a lulling acoustic guitar and lyrics that are both detached and immediate: “I feel like I’ve been dead for years / All my things are gone, but there are no tears”. That’s one beautifully depressing lyric. Yet even this gorgeous opening is marred by gawky drum loops and purposely “geeky” sound effects. Perhaps the press kit should qualify the Neil Young comparison by adding “Trans-era.” Moreover, some of the songs suffer from grating repetition and clichéd lyrics. “Played Like a Record” features an irritating chorus of “I was played like a record / Baby, played like a record / Baby, played like a record / Baby, played by you”. Barksdale delivers the lyrics in that effeminate, pained British accent that was mandatory during the height of new wave. Please, one Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark was sufficient.
Overall, Le Chevre is a fascinating listen. Unfortunately, fascinating doesn’t always equal enjoyable, and the album becomes tiresome at the midway point. Novelty appeal can only ensnare the listener for a limited time, and even the most unusual sound can become stale if not rooted in authenticity. Perhaps Barksdale and Gowan will continue to develop their sound, for they’re definitely onto something eccentric. If not, they always have a career making music for future episodes of VH1’s I Love the ‘80s. Clap your hands everybody, and everybody clap your hands.
// Notes from the Road
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