[11 June 2007]
An awareness of the journey an artist takes to arrive at a place of creative genesis can be absolutely essential in understanding the art itself. Knowing what school of thought motivated a painter’s selection of colors or which life experiences served to catalyze a novelist’s choice of plot, setting, and character may have great effect on the person experiencing such work and might even serve to inspire a like journey. Principal songwriter Craig Klein and the members of Chicago band the Race understand full well the significance of boulevards leading to places of inspiration. The band’s latest album Ice Station serves as a very rewarding point of intersection, creating a central crossing for three roads which have seen, and continue to welcome, adventuresome sojourn. Two of these pathways ultimately allowed the album to come into being while the third and resulting road which begs to be traveled is that of the album itself.
The most difficult of these three trails began after the band’s 2004 release, If You Can. For all intents and purposes, the group ceased to exist sometime after the project broke and Klein had to start from scratch in the process of writing Ice Station. Ultimately, a revamped lineup (which included the production work of new member Joshua Eustis of Telefon Tel Aviv) came together to record the songs. These changes are reflected in the freshness of the band’s approach and the bold brushstrokes with which they paint, sounding like a group who, because they know what the end of the road looks like, has little to lose.
Another road traveled in the making of the project spans the distance between the band’s native Chicago and the frosty terrain of Siberia. Klein’s fascination with the remote region led to his academic exploration of the area’s history, which in turn led to an integration of his interest into the songs he was writing for Ice Station. Besides obvious references in song names and the album’s title, the record is marked by a sense of emotional isolation as if the band has allowed the listener along on such a journey, yet without a great deal of intimacy or relationship. This, however, is not a blemish; it simply spurs the listener on to pay greater attention and strive to gain a sense of what is being communicated.
Finally, the absorption of Ice Station itself involves a journey of trust between the band and the listener. For those without previous exposure to the Race’s music, the sonic complexities which mark the project will require a willingness to go along with what the band is doing and will necessitate a confidence that the risks the band is taking will pay off. Ice Station is the type of album which, at least on first listen, should be processed in its entirety. Any attempt to randomly sample tracks out of context might provide a glimpse into the band’s vision but will not yield the fullness and understanding of a start-to-finish listen. One’s senses should be submitted to the Race for the album’s full forty-one minutes in order to truly be immersed into such a compelling and expressive work.
Certain tracks retain a definite, indie-rock-friendly accessibility while others will not appeal to every Death Cab fan in the land. In the former camp are cuts like “Evil Dove”, whose dreamy melody, syllabic backing vocals, and repetition of the phrase “you spread your wings” work in tandem to be instantly memorable and captivating. “Crack Goes the Lake”, however, is a prime example of how the album, at times, requires a measure of patience (which, in the case of this track, is absolutely rewarded) and a willingness to be exposed to a sound that is not coming out of many coffeehouses or bookstores. That these two tracks are juxtaposed together is evidence of the group’s versatility and scope of expression. One of the album’s more dazzling moments, “Crack Goes the Lake” makes effective use of repetitive instrumental and vocal figures, allowing them to enter, exit, and overlap at a frenetic pace, creating what effectively becomes a beautifully dark and danceable track.
Similarly thrilling moments include the title track’s up-tempo immediacy, the pulsing and eventual vocal climax of “Odessa”, and the slightly more straightforward “Walls”, which finds its potency in dueling rhythmic motives played by guitar and drums. “Walls” features one of Klein’s most cogent and conventional vocals; at times sounding detached and at others very much engaged, his versatility and ability to convey a variety of emotions through a variety of approaches is a hallmark of the album. Instrumentally, the interplay between highly melodic guitars and the lockstep rhythms initiated by drummer Kevin Duneman and bassist Jeremy Parker allow the band’s songs to run a dynamic gamut of expression.
Because of the nature of their work, the Race do not always give the listener easy reference points. There is definite difficulty in attempting to impose classification or the constraints of genre; trying to say the Race sound like this or that band ultimately proves futile. The Race seem to have achieved their artistic end (pushing the bounds of what one is used to hearing in a pop song) through unconventional means (tweaking sonic elements and layering various sounds in certain patterns without breaking apart existing ideas about song structures or forms).
Ultimately, the steps which produced Ice Station result in a truly rewarding musical journey with much sonic scenery to experience along the way. One might hope the road between this and the band’s next project might be a bit smoother though no less colorful.