Worthy of Canonization?
We critics have privileged access to the “Hipster Bible” (like the Hippie Bible, just with less smokable pages), you know, that tome of snobbery that deems what is good sacred shit and what is just shit. The problem with determining which shit goes where is the conundrum of collective arbitrariness, where the opinion of the self-proclaimed elitist curators of cool weighs in the equally informed, albeit indifferent, masses. Hence, as Transmissionary Six falls on pages 6577 to 6584, wedged between verses praising the joys of lo-fi and trendy obtuseness, this review will attempt to see if its latest effort Get Down is worthy of canonization.
Get Down is the third album from the Seattle duo of Terri Moeller and Paul Austin, who have respective stints as drummer of the Walkabouts and guitarist/songwriter of the Willard Grant Conspiracy. Like the band’s previous two albums, Get Down features its trademark gothic alt-country sound, an organic version of Talk Talk wearing cowboy hats. Incidentally, the album’s title is a first strike already. Get Down implies hitting the dance floor, doing the boogie. However, the 12 tracks featured here are exercises in immersive desolation. Then again, maybe they were trying to be deliberately ironic, a hipster trait indeed.
The album starts out promisingly enough with “Blacktinrocket”, a nice, lazy, downward-strummed minor-chorded excursion, accompanied by Moeller’s sad echo-tinged reverbed vocals, a resigned amble into the embrace of a gloomy afternoon. As the strings kick in mid-section, they channel competence excerpted from the Wilco library of songs.
However, as the second song “Flake” comes in, and the third, the fourth, so on and so forth, I suddenly realized that barring the two electronica instrumentals “Johnny&Waldo” and “Element”, the whole album sounds remarkably similar. It is as if the template of straight-up unexciting 4/4 beat melancholia is regarded as a winning formula, and incessantly emphasizing throughout the LP. Furthermore, the repetitive nature is exacerbated by unadventurous vocals that sound like an unmotivated Lucinda Williams phoning it in. To make things worse, the production is such that it seems to coat each song with density, deemphasizing lyrical poignancy in favor of the unmemorable music, resulting in a murk of heavy-handed atmospherics. It is the musical equivalent of being mired in a tar pit, and it isn’t a pleasant feeling.
Interestingly enough, Get Down‘s best tracks are the abovementioned instrumentals. “Johnny&Waldo” highlights the band’s mastery of minimalism. Possessing a nice Krautrock rhythm section, it features fantastic interplay between the drums and piano, with free jazz runs a la Thelonious Monk. Think DJ Shadow suddenly becoming enamored with prog jazz, and you’d get the idea of one of the album’s rare flashes of ingenuity. The other moment of brilliance is “Element”, which employs a heady mix of wall-of-sound guitar and a nice repeating pentatonic riff. The song builds up with subtle textures of angular guitars and laptop ditties, a most welcome marriage of shoegazer and Stevie Ray Vaughn. It’s as if Brian Eno-era U2 was a bluesman feeling the groove, minus the self-important voice of Bono mucking things up.
Get Down is a less-than-stellar effort from the hipster darlings. Frankly, listening to the album’s first five or six songs in one shot is a chore, due to its less-than-imaginative nature. However, the electronica elements do hold promise, showing a mastery of the form that will place them on the Dirty Three level of proficiency if they choose to continue along this path. If I dare provide some career advice, the Transmissionary Six should stop being a poor man’s Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. Instead, it should forge a path taken by the likes of Manitoba, capitalizing on the strengths exhibited by these two blessed songs.
This, my fellow pilgrims, will ensure your place in the canon.