[26 June 2002]
If being wildly prolific were the sole mark of greatness, Bren Mead and Sean Rawls would be household names as geniuses of pop composition. As it is, these founding members of Masters of the Hemisphere are at the very least well-versed in songcraft, and may be just short of hitting the genius mark.
As the little-known legend goes, Mead and Rawls were childhood chums with an early love of music, having written over 200 songs and performed with over thirty different bands before graduating high school. When college brought them back together again in Athens, GA, one of the indie rock corners of the universe, it was only natural that the duo would reunite with a new band name and attempt to conquer the world of indie pop with their sonic stylings. Thankfully, Masters of the Hemisphere seems to be the name that has stuck, and Mead and Rawls have already made decent headway in the domination department.
If their self-titled 1999 Kindercore debut revealed their ability to create subtle and sublime low-key offerings that would make any twee heart smile, their 2000 concept album, I Am Not a Freemdoom, made heads turn in 180-degree style. An entire album based around a comic book (which was included with some pressings of the album), the story of an evil dog attempting to rule a mysterious aquatic kingdom made for a bizarre but entertaining ride. Some hailed it as genius, others just scratched their heads, but in that disc Masters of the Hemisphere revealed that they have as much in common with campy, comic acts like They Might Be Giants as they do with more austere pop bands such as Belle and Sebastian.
Protest a Dark Anniversary marks a return to basics, in a fashion. Much more straightforward in terms of subject matter than Freemdoom, this full-length contains songs of deceptive simplicity, yet features the same distinctively obtuse perspective and indefinable breeziness that has characterized all of the Masters albums. In fact, the particular gift that seems to have been bestowed on Mead and Rawls in spades is the light touch in all of their songs, an omnipresent lightheartedness that makes everything they produce seem fun. If the reputation for humor and antics in their live performances is an indication, this is simply a reflection of the songwriters’ personalities.
Protest kicks off with the lovely single “Anything, Anything”, a song about the relatively serious subject matter of being inside a failing relationship. Yet the musical accompaniment features their familiar airy guitar pop and a melodious calliope arrangement that sounds almost like the Cure’s Head on the Door era (think of the juxtapositions of “Close to Me”). The end result is almost a disjointed but lackadaisical feeling. This same feeling pervades the album’s other single, the wonderful “Local Government”. With an acoustic sound that recalls old R.E.M. crossed with Beach Boys melodies, it’s a warm, inviting song that wraps around the listener, distracting you from the lyrics, which speak of being isolated and yearning for escape.
The core of Masters of the Hemisphere’s sound is basic jangle-pop, and they play to the style very well, but the songs are also augmented by the talented multi-instrumentalist Adrian Finch, who’s recently logged time with fellow Athens band Elf Power. For instance, “Take Time” stands out as much for its great horn lines, which are vaguely reminiscent of the Waitresses. Like the calliope sounds of “Anything, Anything”, the horns of “Take Time” really become the focal point, furthering the subtlety of the guitars and vocals underneath until they finally dominate the song entirely in well-entwined interplay. Still, it’s the basic guitar pop that dominates in the end, and whether it ranges from the mid-‘80s New Order-like tones of “Give Me Something Clearly” to the sunny strumming of “200 Heads”, this is great indie pop through and through.
Of course, if a certain bittersweet feeling pervades many of the songs on Protest a Dark Anniversary and results in some very easily read songs, such as “Rules of Life” and “Summer With You”, the Masters haven’t completely given up the other sides of their personalities. “Sailboat Kite”‘s psychedelia, “All Your Winning Numbers”‘s ultra-mellow shuffle and lilting harmonies, and “In the Morning”‘s shift from dark brooding into morning sun all feature their degree of inscrutability. But it’s a controlled obscurity. Whether or not the lyrics make sense in their absolute sense, these songs invite you in rather than shut you out or force you to overthink meanings.
Tying up all the threads of these songs is an excellent understanding of the difference between low-fi and low-key. Unlike some of the more popular-at-the-moment indie acts currently on the scene, Masters of the Hemisphere don’t deliberately under-produce their albums for effect. This isn’t a self-aware garage sound, but it would just as easily qualify as low-fi. The guitars aren’t blaring, the songs don’t try to fill up the space of the full digital spectrum, and you get some tape hiss here and there. But this recording has a rich quality to match the songs, a deceptive simplicity that is authentically low-key rather than low-fi for image’s sake.
It’s this understated power that makes Masters of the Hemisphere great. There’s no escaping that Protest a Dark Anniversary is a charming album through and through. Hopefully with their current tour in support of Elf Power (giving Finch double duty), Masters of the Hemisphere can break out of the ranks of obscure college bands. “Local Government” has already made some headway on college radio, and as more people are drawn to pick up a copy of Protest a Dark Anniversary, it shouldn’t be long before some are recognizing the quiet genius of this near-perfect band.