I want to let you in on a secret. I want to tell you about this amazing band from Austin via Chicago called Palaxy Tracks. I want to tell you their new record makes good on the promise of their most excellent sophomore effort and is entirely awesome. I even want to be tempted into telling you without any intended irony that it will change your life. Sadly I can’t say any of these things as Twelve Rooms just isn’t as good as I want it to be. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad; it’s really rather good. Still something is amiss making it not quite the masterwork I wanted.
If my expectations are at fault here then I redirect that charge back at the band for having set them so high. Cedarland remains a stunning shot out from the unknown as enchanting as it is unexpected. A smoldering haze of melancholy it dwells in an ethereal space of transcendent sadness where Belle & Sebastian invoke as much Ian Curtis as they do Nick Drake. Of course, now that any and every given emo band has appropriated Joy Division as their little black badge of authenticated anguish, it’s an unfortunate necessity that the distinction be drawn between this band and that sort of melodrama. While their aesthetic may dwell in dim spaces, Palaxy Tracks never lapse into ersatz emoting. With the same casual affability that defines Peek-A-Boo Records label-mates Black Lipstick, any angst is made much more palatable. That familiar intimacy nullifies any notion of eyeliner and imparts an undercurrent of warmth. Yet this asset also works against the band rendering what could have been captivating as only charming. Exacerbating this flaw is a lack of lyrical hooks and monochromatic production values making many songs indistinguishable. Minor at most, these few faults keep Cedarlandon the nigh side of greatness.
Unfortunately Twelve Rooms finds Palaxy Tracks totally fucking with a formula that only needs fine-tuning. Variety is their ultimate undoing as the band incorporates an expanding assortment of instrumentation and arrangements. While this makes for more readily identifiable songs, it sometimes puts the band beyond their means. Unable to surpass or even match Cedarland, Twelve Rooms is nevertheless a beautiful failure and still well worth recommending.
Haunting both records is a luminous sense of descending dusk. Songs hover in precarious weightlessness as prone to angelic ascent as they are to despondent plunge. Evoking other prominent masters of that medium between light and dark, “Camera” finds the band at its most Stuart Murdoch ever and “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” is an outright Leonard Cohen cover.
That last comparison seems particularly pertinent given the considered care with which the lyrics on Twelve Rooms are laid down in literary detail. Principal songwriter Brandon Durham impressively crafts the entire album out of one moment. Each song is an exacting assessment of that make-up-or-break-up instant when a couple must choose to “learn to die / or learn to rise above”. Opening as an estranged husband confronts his spouse with “it is time to decide / are we still man and wife”, the rest of the record remains right on the brink of everything either ending or starting over with each subsequent indication suggesting a different direction. Nothing could be better suited to the ephemeral grace inherent in these songs.
Adept as they may be, Durham’s lyrics are almost agreeably consumed by his commanding delivery. It’s a shame to lose lines like “the summer of ‘95 is nothing more than a lie” but Durham’s sonorous croon offsets the sacrifice. Suitably contradictory, his baritone rolls out smooth and strong yet fragile and floating. Mastering a substantial emotive range within restraining timbre, Durham sounds like nothing less than a cross between Leonard Cohen and Elliott Smith. The strongest songs are those allowing his voice to ascend and elevate the band beneath him.
Regrettably, songs like “Lamplighter” and “Up My Sleeve” rock onward with directed headiness that leaves Durham straining to catch up. His precisely ordered cadence could keep time for the whole group but sounds awkwardly languid as the band outpaces him.
Other missteps are also rooted in arrangements. The chamber pop of “Me & You & Him” deviates from the primary colors of alternately shimmering and stinging guitar tones that have thus far established the band’s identity. Similarly, the waltzing pump organ and percussion of “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” would sound more at home on a Decemberists’ record than they do here. Lastly, the album ends with a whimper as they follow up their most successful synthesis of brooding twee and hard rocking with the directionless dreck of “Twelve Rooms”. (For future reference and the benefit of all bands everywhere, it should be noted that the concept and execution of “ambient soundtracks to unnamed films” is just as boring as it is pretentious and played-out; to put it another way, any impulse inspired by or involving “Eno” as an adjective should be shitcanned immediately.)
Beyond those errors, there’s some great musicianship on Twelve Rooms. The bass and drum breakdown and build-up of “Grey Snake” perfectly accentuates the line “I need to breath”. Adding some summery schmaltz, the lite FM guitar lead closing out “The Clarion Way” offers a much needed respite of buoyancy. The frenzied drumming and fuck-it-all guitar solos of “Dead Language” successfully contrast the album’s overall restraint and would have made for a hell of a closer if not for the unfortunate title track.
Still the ratio of good to bad here is stacked pretty heavily in favor of Palaxy Tracks and any listener lucky enough to discover them. Cedarland may be a better place to start, but Twelve Rooms is enjoyable on its own and suggests something even better may still be on the way. Though I hoped they would cross over with this release, Palaxy Tracks remains among the ranks of indie rockers who are good enough but not yet great.
I want to tell them to keep trying.