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Saloon

(This Is) What We Call Progress

(This Is; US: 9 Apr 2002; UK: 8 Apr 2002)

Of the many pleasures of pop music, this quintet out of Reading, England emphasizes, above all others, the soothing lull of repetition, repetition, repetition. It’s the aspect of rock music that may be its most culturally valuable, aligning it with the transcendent folk traditions the world over and the existential inquires of the avant-garde. The American masters of repetitive bliss were the Velvet Underground, who had consciously transplanted avant-garde envelope-pushing into their rock band format. The same cue was taken elsewhere. In Sweden, for example, a group of forward thinking hippies adopted Terry Riley’s minimalist ideas and created cathartic one-chord rock under the band names Parson Sound, International Harvester, and Trees Grass and Stone. (See last year’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s CD reissues on the Subliminal Sounds and Silence labels.) The German movement in this area has become commonly known as Krautrock: an hypnotic music for the drone of the autobahn. And England has its tradition, of which Saloon is a late entry.


Their debut disc, recorded by singer Amanda Gomez at Reading College and School of Art and Design, has a hazy sheen to it, as if one hears it through cheesecloth. It’s a condition of the recording that emphasizes the music’s cohesiveness, but costs something in sonic beauty. In the end, the sound quality is not a liability; it suits the atmosphere of the album quite well; and that atmosphere is decidedly English. The guitars have a jangle a la The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, the beats have a post-punk drive, the vocals are pretty and choir-girl like, and, above all, there is a tidiness to it all that makes it all very inoffensive. Which is not to say, however, that it does not also bite.


The 10 songs are on the longish side—generally around five minutes apiece—and encase pop tunes into a seemingly ongoing propulsive jauntiness that begins and ends beyond the disc’s borders. The vocal parts of the songs are pretty, with melodies that make the best of a range of tone and emotion limited, seemingly, by a respectable modesty. They are catchier after a number of listens, and I, for one, first realized their sweetness away from the stereo. The quality of Ms. Gomez’s voice is reminiscent of Harriet Wheeler’s (of the Sundays), though it is softer and more mysterious, and she employs it in a more conversational approach to singing. The setting for her voice is, very suitably, gently rhythmic and unobtrusive. When the verses are through, the music retains those particular qualities but tends to lift its head with percussion, electronic sounds, wind instruments and brass peeking over the steady pulse.


The overall mood of the record holds fast to a contented recline, but ranges from the cheery optimism of “Bicycle Thieves” to the Euro-pop decadence of “Le Weekend”. “Static” is a stately piece that focuses the general din to a dramatic march which surges in and out of view towards the song’s end. It resembles, with the help of a little imagination, rising and falling volume levels of white noise, despite the beauty of the sounds and the distinct lack of sonic effects. The tune reveals the band to be capable of nuances of performance only hinted at elsewhere on the album.


The songs on (This Is) What We Call Progress were honed at live performances over the course of four years. The extraordinary gestation period of the material (relative to the general tendency to overfill CDs with underdeveloped stuff) pays off in the diversity of accents the band achieves within a unifying sound. The Brazilian-hued “2500 Walden Ave.”, for example, has a subtlety of performance and a particular kind of melody-twist that recalls the great Antonio Carlos Jobim’s work—in particular as recorded with the wonderful Brazilian singer Ellis Regina on their masterpiece Ellis and Tom.


One last thing that this lovely debut has going for it is the booklet art, designed by co-producer Adam Prinz. If you’re fond of the collage on the album cover, there’s more of it on the back of the booklet, and the artwork makes a nice compliment to the music.

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