[11 December 2008]
It’s generally expected that bands evolve somewhat from one release to the next. Sometimes this expectation can seem a bit unfair, as criticizing a band for sounding like itself, but I think it’s valid: it’s important to see some indication that a band is cognizant of their flaws and is working to rectify them, or is at least trying to do something new. Otherwise, you might as well be The Mars Volta.
Glowing Bird is billed on Arizona’s website as being their second LP, which came as a surprise to me - last year’s Fameseeker and the Mono was a full seven songs long, but was apparently considered just an EP. As far as I can tell, the band is known (if they’re known at all) as being “the Facebook band”: a few years ago, when their debut Welcome Back Dear Children had just come out, the band advertised heavily on the then-new Facebook ads, at least in the New York network. Since then, despite a steady stream of releases, they’ve languished mostly in the uneasy tour circuit of the semi-known, playing shows to a mix of people-who-found-them-on-MySpace and people-who-just-happened-to-be-in-the-bar.
On the face of it, Glowing Bird is a fine disc, a sunny dose of psychedelic pop played by unusually competent musicians. Everyone here is a multi-instrumentalist, and a number of unusual instruments show up to supplement their traditional rock brethren - a hammered dulcimer here, a guzheng there, and in at least one instance a mysterious instrument called a ‘dandrubenex’, whose existence even Google cannot confirm. (“Did you mean ‘kidandruben’?” it asks me, and I cannot for the life of me understand how I could have typed the former and meant the latter.)
The result is a catchy headphone record, dense and involving and fun, and where it works, it really works. “Heath”, the album’s first track, opens with a snarling electric guitar and sneering vocals, before a swell of strings changes the song into a sort of ambling, midtempo head-bopper. The title track features a tense interplay between guitar and cello, before segueing into “Otto the Eel”, which builds throughout to a genuine sing-along of a chorus. And throughout Arizona manage the tricky feat of seeming at once lavishly produced and folksy.
But if Arizona is aiming for The Grateful Dead’s psychedelic sensibility, then they should find themselves a Robert Hunter: the lyrics here are never great, and are frequently terrible. There are a few exceptions. “Balloon” tells the charming story of a balloon salesman named Myron, and “Ghost” is a creepy tune about, well, a ghost. But Arizona’s main songwriting method seems to consist mostly of building a chorus around a lyrical snippet that, when sung with fervor and conviction, sounds vaguely profound, and it isn’t until you listen to the verses that you realize how vapid the rest of the song is. “Just don’t take it for granted,” they sing, over a beautiful bit of keyboard noodling, on the album’s third track, but what they’re singing about is actually the local swimming hole. The song is literally about how refreshing it is to immerse yourself in water. (Funny how Whitman never wrote a poem on the subject.) Later in the disc, on “Colors”, the chorus, in beautiful four-part harmony, goes, “All the colors are / rising”. The song is about a sunrise. Guys: I’m glad that you’re inspired by your rural North Carolina setting. But just because hanging out in nature occasionally produces powerful experiences does not mean that everything about nature is profound. You have to pick and choose these things.
The band could also stand to do a little self-editing: at least a third of the twelve tracks on Glowing Bird could be cut without impacting the overall quality in the slightest. On the weakest tracks the band actually sounds a little bored, and the bad cuts sour the rest. But most damningly (at least for me) is that there’s nothing on this disc that Arizona hasn’t done before. Any of these tracks would be at home on Welcome Back Dear Children, and the opposite is true.
Given the band’s relative obscurity, I wonder whether the expectation is fair. Should Arizona feel obligated to refine their sound even when no one is listening? I think so, for the band’s sake if not for the fans’. To date, Arizona has released two good records (well, three, in my mind) that each could have been great records, and the same problems - nonsensical lyrics and filler tracks - plagued them all.
Arizona has, so far, been remarkably prolific: they’ve released two EPs and two LPs since 2005. The band shows enormous promise, and I hope that they’ll take some time and craft their next disc carefully. When they deliver on that promise, the results will be astounding.