Lately, I find myself constantly complaining about the current music scene. I feel like there’s nothing new and interesting being produced, and I find myself pulling my new records off my stereo after a day or two, replacing them with something old. This malaise is why I was initially enthusiastic about Mountain Con, the latest “innovative” band to break from the Seattle music scene. Their album Sancho Panza delivers unconventional rock/soul songs cut-and-pasted with samples and break beats. The band’s lead singer, James Nugent, proclaimed (facetiously or not), “If you want to know what rock will sound like in ten years, just listen to Mountain Con.” Quite a claim, especially given my thoughts when I fist listened to this album: is it already time for late-‘90s throwbacks?
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what Nugent and the boys are trying to do. They’re taking what has become a boring genre of music and changing it up with genre-melding, self-referencing, and general meta-ness. But they’re a young band, and it might be too early in their career to shoot for this. What emerges is sort of a fuzzy homage to Beck, whose evolution as an artist has covered the same territory Mountain Con covers here, and then some. “The Escape Artist” helps the album start off with a bang, but it is so reminiscent of Midnite Vultures-era Beck that it does nothing to distinguish Mountain Con’s sound. “Apocalyptic” and “House Party in the New Dark Ages” recall early ‘90s playground rap (the former ironically sampling a later song on the album, “Rocket Out of Trash”), while on “To Infinity”, Nugent straight-out apes the laid-back cool of Beck and even Stephen Malkmus.
The main problem with these songs is Nugent’s lack of presence. His vocals are forced to take a backseat to the various DJ effects, causing the album to lose its personality. He is not a bad vocalist, nor is he lacking in charisma, but for whatever reason, he often stifles himself. His talent is evidenced startlingly in the ‘70s-style rockers “The Silver Age” and the album closer “November and Everything After”. These songs reveal a different, more appealing side of Mountain Con: a grandiose southern-rock style that suits them far better than the poseur-ish break-beat stylings of the rest of the album.
How frustrating it must be for this forward-looking band that their best material draws on a decade long past. All I can say is that this is much better, my friends, than giving us another reason to cherish Beck. I’ll take “November and Everything After” over “Apocalyptic” any day, if only for the reason that it sounds like a band doing what they want to do, not what think will get them noticed. “I’m a new kind of man”, Nugent sings, “with an old kind of blues”, and yeah, you know, he kind of is. By the time the song lifts up, around four minutes, into a Neil Young-ish gentle wail, I’ve forgotten all about Beck. Relevance is for phonies, boys: write more like this one.