The Atari Star: Dispelling the Myth of Accurate Maps

[28 April 2003]

By Patrick Schabe

Marc Ruvolo and Davey Houle seem bound and determined to make the Atari Star a band that will continually surprise listeners. Take their 2001 and 2002 albums, Shrp Knf Cts Mtns and And Other Smaller, Brighter Worlds respectively, as an example. Despite obviously hailing from the same band, the differences between the albums are nearly night and day.

I first came across the Atari Star with the release of Shrp Knf Cts Mtns, and was almost immediately transfixed. Wrapped around lyrics of obtuse imagery and Ruvolo’s quietly plaintive voice was music that was lush and organic, yet pulsed with life. The music touched on something deep in sound, using open spaces in acoustic and electric guitars to highlight piano and organs and a rich, thumping bass/drums combo from Rob Vester and Houle. It was music that managed to somehow be simultaneously light and heavy. It’s pretty difficult to explain exactly what it was that made the album so powerful to me, but it stuck with me and my CD player for a long while, and “Someone More Deserving Than Myself”, my favorite track on the disc, lodged itself in my brain.

So it was with a certain amount of surprise that I gave a listen to their follow-up, And Other Smaller, Brighter Worlds. The deep, rich pop tones of Shrp Knf seemed to have been replaced with an altogether sunnier approach. Songs like “Black Licorice and Gasoline Fumes” and “Invisible Summers” clipped along at pop-rock paces, with high, lilting melodies. The slightly understated effect was still in place, but the album had a distinct shift towards a bubblegum brightness hinted at in the disc’s title. Played alongside each other, the two discs are only barely recognizable as brothers.

Now, with the release of the Dispelling the Myths of Accurate Maps EP, the Atari Star have shifted gears once more. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they’ve combined the two sides of their past releases and moved ahead. The initial reaction, fueled by the opening bars of both “Death of the Family Name” and “For a Lifetime of Service”, is that Ruvolo and company have been listening to a lot of Coldplay. Bright, chiming guitar notes picked out over a breezy bass guitar open both tracks. However, it quickly becomes apparent that if their first albums were dark, organic pop and bright, shimmering pop, Dispelling the Myths is the most directly rock production yet from the band. With the addition of Thom Dapper (who actually departed the band recently) on lead guitar, the Atari Star decided to crank up the crunch, adding distortion and feedback to their musical repertoires. In the course of the six songs on this EP, it becomes apparent that the band has taken a new direction as well as moved forward.

The same obtuse, image-rich lyrics are delivered by Ruvolo, but where his voice wound up sounding too thin and reedy for some of the chiming pop attempts on And Other Smaller, Brighter Worlds, here his voice drops down to Shrp Knf levels. Moreover, the thicker guitar sound helps prop up the sound when he does decide to reach for the high notes. The biggest change (and surprise), comes with “And What About Ambition”, a track that would be an instrumental except for the overlapped recordings of the title phrase repeated at the song’s end. Built out of buzz, feedback, and distortion, this sonic soup meanders in a nearly Radiohead-like rock fashion.

The title track, “Tinfoil + Twine”, and “Ursine” all continue this direction. In the end, Dispelling the Myths seems like the Atari Star’s entry in a contest to fashion a sound out of current trends in British pop and rock. However, it’s also a return to the past. “Tinfoil + Twine” in particular sounds like it might have come straight from the Shrp Knf sessions, except for the cranked-up electrics and full rock sound.

If anything, Dispelling the Myths goes a long way to showing that the Atari Star is willing to follow its instincts and change courses at a whim. In some ways, this may not always lead to a successful “formula”, but then, formulas are the reason bands become formulaic. It will take a full-length album (and maybe whatever will come next) to determine whether or not the rockist version of the band will be truly successful, but if the indications of this interesting and exciting stepping stone are anything to judge by, it should be something to watch out for.

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