[4 November 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s latest release came out of something of a disagreement with their record label, which, it seems, is getting at least as much press as the music itself. Here’s the short version of events. After making the leap to a major label, the band presented its desired track listing for the new album. Executives at Epic wanted something a bit more commercial. The compromise, if it can be called that, is that the band’s vision, Animal!, is now available only on vinyl and as a digital release, while the record company version Not Animal is available in CD and digital formats.
Not Animal opens with “A Children’s Crusade on Acid,” a slightly warped and mournful anti-social commentary flowing over far-away feedback, a dirge for “such uncertain times.” This song sets a sullen tone for the entire disc, on which Richard Edwards outdoes his peers in the realm of dramatic lyrics. He certainly has a mind for the melancholy, whether it’s the disturbing “Evelyn, your spine cracks like a wineglass” and “I want to gouge out your eyes / Splinter your spine” of “The Shivers (I’ve Got ‘Em),” or the more poetically lovelorn phrases of “Broadripple Is Burning”:
And I’m wasted
You can taste it
Don’t look at me that way
‘Cause I’ll be hanging from a rope
I’ll be hanging from a rope
And if my woman was a fire
She’d burn out before I wake
And be replaced by pints of whiskey
Cigarettes and outer space
Not Animal is not all black bile lyrics, lone lonely-boy voice and understated instrumentation. “As Tall as Cliffs” features loose, ramshackle elements of percussion beneath a harmonica, buoyant acoustic strumming, and the lovely harmonies of Emily Watkins. Andy Fry’s guitar winds around Edwards’ voice as he sings of telling tall tales and taking to the streets while working the whole band into an intensity that might even be called joyous. In fact, the second half of this collection holds the bulk of the better material. “Real Naked Girls” is a lovely ballad swelling with strings and sprinkled with the sound of toy keyboards. “Pages Written on a Wall,” with its cinematic guitar riffs and suspenseful, high-tension horns is by far the most arresting song here, while album closer “Hip Hip Hooray” is a thoroughly gorgeous, charming piece of chamber pop with a Brian Wilson-esque bit of layered vocal lushness at its center.
Not Animal isn’t exactly what Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s would want it to be. It’s probably not quite what many fans would like, either. It might be considered a terminal node on the branch between The Dust of Retreat and the band’s next creation, especially when sitting side-by-side with the version preferred by its creators. But it is an interesting record—in every sense of the word—in the musical evolution of the group.