The Soundtrack of Our Lives
At the end of Bem-Vinda Vontade, a lightly picked acoustic guitar arpeggio and the chime of Gamelan instruments gently lays the record to bed. The track, aptly titled “Ende”, is more a punctuation, a sigh of relief, than a full song or a complete statement. However, it speaks volumes as a summation of the record’s character. First, the Indonesian-American instrumentation draws a parallel between the balance of individual and collaborative work inherent in both Gamelan and Mice Parade music—egoless sound. Second, the track is more a broad expression of emotional intimacy than any specific thought, embedding Bem in environment, texture, and sensation. The two assertions thus represent the meeting of drummer Adam Pierce’s technical and intuitive paths at an open and accessible crossroads. In spite of starting as a solo project, Pierce’s blueprint reflects an inverse—a complete surrender of the self wherein no one voice/instrument outdoes the other. Instead, individual sounds are used to form a greater whole. The result is intentionally abstract in content and broad in theme, warm and engaging, open to interpretation.
The Mice Parade’s equilibrium of composition (in terms of both song and band structure) is apparent in the role assignment of each instrument. The opening “Warm Hand in Farmland” sets waltzing drums and steadily plucked guitars in parallel so that both drive the beat. Semi-mumbled singing functions as tones to add atmosphere, rather than a specific message (even decipherable lyrics such as “broken saddle needs an old forgiving friend” reflect an antiquity, a past, a place that the present self is removed from). The song is composed of multiple instruments and parts, hence representing collaboration, but never sways completely in favor of one voice over another. The music can understandably be shared with a friend over quiet afternoon tea, because it is an embodiment of stimulating conversation.
The exchange never becomes idle chatter, because it greatly resembles a relationship with a deep understanding of the other. In other words, words are only spoken when necessary. “Nights Wave” rolls in loops under the guidance of taught and busy percussion, but with only enough bounce to create an ebb and flow of 3s. With carefully paced precision, the song gradually introduces acoustic guitar strums, up tempo choruses, graceful stops, introspective bridges, and dramatic re-starts of acoustics, vibes, guitar distortion, and soft la la las, all while consistently maintaining the originally established sense of recession and progression, back and forth, easy as she goes. Even the closing sparkle functions as a bridge to “Passing & Galloping”, a track fusing the tonal and rhythmic experimentations of Steve Reich with Yo la Tengo’s comforter of distortion. Like Duke Kahanamoku, Mice Parade rides each wave with quick wits, adjusting to every shift to progress each song with organic ease; speeding chunks of guitars are toned down yet driven by tight hi-hat rides and panning tom rolls, so as not to break the balance of volume established thus far. Clean lines, the entire way. The busy yet steady “Passing” transitions naturally to the hip backbeat of “The Days Before Fiction”, all hi-hat heavy bustle, kick-to-the-snare, kick-to-the-snare. However, with careful calculation, the rhythm moves from funky 4s to an inside out introspective 3, to a bossa moving 2. As time signatures wind down, the composition becomes denser with parts and busy-ness, gradually blossoming into a wash of delayed guitars, stuttering vibes, and rolling drums. In each case, MP’s careful attention to each well-transitioned part demonstrates a work of high craftspersonship. Although personnel shifts as needed from track to track, Bem maintains a unified focus through the group’s complete surrender to the needs of the album as a whole.
With such a lack of individual force, Bem understandably approaches topics with a degree of abstraction. Song titles alone reveal broad themes, such as sensation (“Warm Hand”, “Ground as Cold as Common”) and movement (“Passing”, “Steady as She Goes”, “Waterslide”). However, the approach works to MP’s favor, because it allows its music to work in multiple environments. “Steady”‘s repetitious and steadily loping guitars and brushed drums establish a sense of peace and quiet. Yet the rhythms are strict enough so that it could be more apt for a moment of resign after a day of work, riding the bus home, staring at the people bustling about their business, as opposed to a Sunday morning slow rise. Similarly, “Ground” opens with taut guitars and a flurry of drums that create a sense of slow-mo drama, but restarts as a rush past windmills through the fields, vastly opening the sense of space. Much like life, each song shifts moods, changes its mind, and moves on. And on. And on.
Bem is a record of constant motion: speeding up, slowing down, changing directions, repeating, movement in all directions. Although finely tuned and well orchestrated, the album never panders by creating an artificial sense of drama or relying on familiar rock tropes. The Mice Parade instead perform with such modesty that the effect is warm and inviting. It simply speaks to the familiar. In this sense, Bem-Vinda Voltade lives up to its name by welcoming the listener to a musical world that mirrors a familiar life—ours.