[11 April 2006]
It’s all very impressive for a band that’s only a few months past its first birthday. Coming together in early winter of 2004, and playing its first live show in December of that year, Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s went from solo effort to band-plus-collaborators to a full-fledged eight-piece in a matter of months, recorded a debut album before the band had even coalesced, and was touring the country shortly thereafter. With little more than that first year behind them (but a whole lot of buzz in their wake), all of a sudden Margot gets inked to a big label deal and everyone from CNN to AOL Music to MTV is talking about them. It’s the indie rock American Dream.
So, yes, if you’re just now tuning in, this March release is actually a re-issue, and this young band already has an impressive backstory. Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s first caught my eye at the 2005 South Park Music Festival, where they gave one of the event’s top standout performances and where I picked up my first copy of The Dust of Retreat. By December, the album had insinuated itself in my brain to the degree that it forced its way onto my Top 10 list for the year. And as the band expanded its touring radius, more and more people started to pick up on the group’s intimately affecting dynamic, garnering more and more press with every stop they made.
In spite of the gentle but persistent charms of the band, I have my suspicions that Artemis might have seen glimmers of the next Arcade Fire in the magnetism of Margot, and at first blush it seems like an obvious comparison (and one that I admittedly made myself). The group tours as a packed-stage production, composing multi-instrumental songs that take advantage of a full sound, a range of vocalists, and layered percussion. In its early stages there was a core band with a group of collaborators adding instrumental variety. And, hey, they have a cello player, surely a marker of indie rock hipness du jour, and, whoa, a trumpet too!
But a close listen to the actual music reveals a different elemental focus in Margot than in the Arcade Fire specifically. Whereas the latter plays with themes of fierce exuberance in the face of apocalyptic tenors, and uses its instrumentation to drop hard codas and melodic twists into its songs, Margot is as much about quietude as it is about energy, and its songs are intricately woven together into something much more familiar and cozy, in spite of the multitude of sounds used. And while the contributions to the songs feel collaborative, they’re more controlled than spontaneous, and center around the creative vision of songwriter Richard Edwards. Though Emily Watkins’s Rhodes piano and synths or Jesse Lee’s cello might grab the spotlight as an immediate focal point, it’s the character of the songs that Edwards writes that gives Margot its winter chill, world-weary beauty, and sad-eyed romanticism.
Much has already been made of Edwards’s art and film obsessions, but they do serve to explain the band as well as anything. He’s claimed that the songs were written with the specific purpose of imagining life in the 1960s Greenwhich Village art and counter-culture scene (albeit filtered through the fancies of a Midwestern Indianapolis kid with a minty fresh drinking-age ID). Edwards has also admitted to the fact that his interest in and study of film theory has always informed his music, especially his deep love of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums—the Gwyneth Paltrow character giving the band its titular name, Margot. And like Jim Walker of Nuvo has noted, the sound of Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s is very much akin to the tone and feel of The Royal Tenenbaums itself, as through Edwards set out to craft a set of songs that would play out as comfortable neighbors in the world of the Tenenbaums, its characters the friends that Margot Tenenbaum might visit when off-camera. It’s a comfortable retro cool; the sensation generated by a really great thrift store on a late-autumn afternoon. The band has teasingly described itself as sex-folk and scarf-rock, the latter highlighting the knit-wear coziness of its indie aesthetic. (Aside to my colleague down the street at Westword: A band giving a self-description of their music is not the same as claiming to have invented a new genre. Jeez.)
If you came across Margot prior to the Artemis signing, you’ll be interested to know that the re-issue of The Dust of Retreat does bear differences to the disc originally put out on Standard Recording Company. The first thing you’ll notice is that the tracks have been re-sequenced. The disc still kicks off with the icy intro of “A Sea Chanty of Sorts”, that hollow, wind-swept synth opening the affair (and which, later repeated, strangely recalls Linkin Park of all things) before quickly resolving into a shuffling acoustic ballad. But instead of resolving into the swooping melody and steady build of “On a Freezing Chicago Street”, the next track is now “Skeleton Key”, brightly re-recorded and highlighted with the obvious intent of turning it into a lead single—and notably sounding the most like the Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” in its intro, though quickly proving a feint. While the new recording doesn’t substantially alter the song, the instruments now have a lot more pull, drifting in and out of the foreground and blending into one another more smoothly. If the self-recorded original tracks seemed to have a low-key grace to them, this track shows the potential for Margot to really explode in the studio on their next album.
In fact, the whole album has been remastered, but gratefully none of the original’s plays on space and acoustic dynamics have been stripped away. The same timpanic echoes have been retained in the drumming, the distant “whoop"s preserved, and the percussive clatter is intact. But there’s a new crispness to The Dust of Retreat now that most clearly enhances Watkins’s keyboard work, but really gives the whole disc a more robust sense, even as the lines have been sharpened. It’s particularly obvious on the songs that stand out as the strongest, which despite the re-sequencing, are still the same. “Quiet as a Mouse” remains Dust‘s most thoroughly engaging track, and the one where all the elements of Margot shine in unison. It’s also the most energetic, loud song on the album, and the re-mastering adds even more depth to its layering and gives Edwards’s voice a clarity that was softened on the original. All of the album’s more muscular, wall-of-sound tracks, including “On a Freezing Chicago Street” and “Barfight Revolution, Power Violence”, are brighter here, while the ballads have retained their wistful sparsity. And perhaps the biggest bonus of all is that Hubert Glover’s trumpet fills seem less like instrumental hooks sprinkled as spice, and more like integral pieces of the compositions. That said, the changes are primarily subtle, and it’s not like the original recording of The Dust of Retreat needed much assistance.
The best thing about Artemis picking up The Dust of Retreat is simply that it brings the album and Margot the attention they deserve. The odds of an eight-piece touring band being viable in the long run are always slim, but that’s exponentially the case when they’re limited to indie label support and the handful of fans who come out to shows based solely on what music writers have to say. But trust me when I say that if you only hear “Skeleton Key” and aren’t convinced, there’s a wealth of variety to explore on The Dust of Retreat. As for myself, I’m already looking forward to Artemis reaping the rewards of this album and getting Margot back in the studio. The press release says it’s already half-written and I’ll only have to wait until they’ve traveled 10,000 miles on their current tour, so it shouldn’t be long now.