Singer: Unhistories

[24 March 2008]

By Sean Padilla

It’s almost impossible to enjoy Chicago post-rock supergroup Singer’s music without knowledge of the band’s collective pedigree.  Guitarist Todd Rittman and drummer Adam Vida were members of U.S. Maple, rock’s most divisive Beefheart acolytes.  Adam’s guitar-playing brother Ben plays with drone merchants Town and Country.  Bassist Robert Lowe used to be in the No Wave-influenced quartet 90 Day Men.  As if that weren’t enough, both Ben and Robert have ambient solo projects (Bird Show and Lichens, respectively).  Pedigree aside, Singer’s main gimmick is that—as befits its name—all four members sing.  Each song on its debut album Unhistories boasts multi-part vocal harmonies that frequently sound at odds with the fitful, atonal music behind it. 

Since even the best supergroups tend to be little more than the sum of their parts, it should shock no one that Unhistories sounds like U.S. Maple fronted by a barbershop quartet, with occasional dollops of electronic processing thrown in.  Opening track “Slow Ghost” sets the template. One guitarist plays a long-lined chord progression, while the other plays solos that veer wildly in and out of the pentatonic scale. The drummer embellishes his boxy stop/start rhythms with long, fluid rolls. Lowe’s voice shifts from a slurred drawl to a raspy falsetto with equal aplomb, while the rest of the band harmonizes behind him.  Lowe takes the lead on most songs, which is a good thing: if his comrades’ work with their previous bands is any indication, he’s clearly the best singer of the bunch. 

Unfortunately, there are many moments on Unhistories when the music is so dissonant and disjointed that it almost forbids Lowe from eking a strong vocal melody out of it.  Singer frequently puts its instruments in simultaneous yet independent motion.  On “Please, Tell the Justices We’re Fine”, the guitarists sound like they’re playing an entirely different song than the one that Adam’s metronomic Krautrock pulse is meant to support.  Singer also grafts unrelated intros and codas onto songs that would’ve been stronger without them.  They spend the first six minutes of “Mauvais Sang” building up a propulsive calypso groove, only to abruptly derail it with the album’s most blatant U.S. Maple impersonation, right down to the detuned guitars and asthmatic wheezing.

Paradoxically, Unhistories‘s biggest weakness is its sameness.  Despite the band’s insatiable appetite for deconstruction, the songs—all but one of which are in the exact same key—blur together very quickly.  Although Singer certainly lives up to its name, the band’s refusal to draw a straight line and follow it may be more of a vice than a virtue.  Even fans of its members’ previous bands may end up scratching their heads upon first listen.

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