A Vague Review of a Vague, but Good, Album
Words cannot convey the dread that I felt when I heard the opening track “” “” (a difficult track to listen to as well as to type) from Raleigh, North Carolina trio Ticonderoga’s self-titled debut album. Opening with an ominous organ chord, highlighted by a brief mournful blast of what sounds like a clarinet, the minute long sound sketch warned of a pretentious post-rock album full of painfully pointless scavenging of Jim O’Rourke’s garbage bin. The last thing the world needs is another band that thinks it’s being experimental when it’s really just throwing together random sounds. Fortunately, “” “” is a bit of a joke to throw off listeners, as the band Ticonderoga—despite their experimental leanings—actually base their sound on a twisted sort of future-folk psychedelia.
If this description seems vague, which it probably is, it’s because Ticonderoga itself is quite vague as a group. A Ticonderoga song will typically start with one sort of approach, often featuring a stripped down acoustic guitar and Phil Moore’s Malkmus-esque vocals, but it will change into a different genre (and often tempo) within a minute’s notice. “Kim & Kelly”, for instance, starts as a gentle folk song and somehow mutates into a Tortoise-inspired instrumental without the listener’s awareness. Ticonderoga’s songs change directions quickly, but somehow these changes occur subliminally. A listener has a better chance of figuring out when exactly in their previous night’s dream their dad became Harrison Ford than figuring out what exact point in a Ticonderoga song it became a thrashing rocker or a droning anthem.
Ticonderoga’s unique vagueness—their songs rarely succumb to include anything as banal as verses, choruses, or bridges—also creeps into their line-up. Of the three members, the only thing the liner notes make certain is that Phil Moore is the primary vocalist, Wes Phillips probably plays the most drums, and any violin comes solely from the hands of Mark Paulson. The rest of the instrumentation is pretty much shared between the three of them. It’s as useless to separate their particular parts as it is to attempt to split apart their songs into their component sections.
The three of them, according to the notes, are all the lead guitar player, which makes sense considering that despite Ticonderoga’s experimental nature, Ticonderoga revolves around the power of the acoustic guitar. Despite the erratic Drumbo-style rhythm section and strange genre shifts, the core of Ticonderoga’s sound seems to be rooted in the folk tradition. There is a sense of pure Americana in the music that provides solid footing for the band’s noisy tangents. When Beck’s anti-folk tracks first bubbled up to the mainstream, critics hailed the music’s stream-of-conscious, pop-culture referencing lyrics as a new style of folk music for today’s media-shortened attention span. Ticonderoga seem to be aiming for the same approach, that is, folk music that is gloriously corrupted by any influence one could name and refuses to remain still for any length of time. It scarcely matters whether the band is playing straight acoustic ballads or gritty rockers, it all seems connected to something ancient and perennial in America.
Again, I’m being vague. It’s the music’s fault, really. There is nothing concrete here on the album. Ticonderoga suggests more than it reveals. This acts to the band’s benefit, as it certainly sounds like little else in either the post-rock scene or the burgeoning freak-folk movement. The album, sadly, suffers the same problem as most music that suggests a dream state: such music, like dreams themselves, fails to leave much impression on the waking mind. The only songs that really establish themselves as actual compositions are “Over the Hill”, with its desperate cry of “I was wrong”, and the semi-lucid album highlight “Two Old Witches”, where Moore’s vocals become surprisingly forceful and push Paulson’s violin and Phillip’s drumming into full gear. Ultimately, though, Ticonderoga‘s opaque nature makes delving into it and exploring it even more enjoyable. After all, what excites us human beings more than a mystery unsolved?