[21 March 2006]
I don’t know much about Oklahoma, but I don’t imagine that much ever happens there. In doing some quick research on the State, I was surprised to learn it is one of only four states to be recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as having more than 10 distinct eco-regions within its borders. Located in the near dead center of the US, Oklahoma’s terrain ranges from arid panhandles to rich forests, from sweeping prairie land to thick swamps. If the human population in the region is relatively quiet, Mother Nature is making up for it in spades, offering the State’s citizens an elaborate and rich environmental display.
Being tucked away in the middle of what seems to those of us who are elsewhere, nowhere, I always find it inspiring that culture can still grow and thrive in the absence of an established “scene”. People on the coasts tend to forget how lucky they are that major metropolitan areas are crammed so close together, and arts scenes thrive in these environs. For aspiring artists and musicians, inspiration is only your nearest exhibition or concert away, and there’s probably a new event each week to sate creative desires. But I like to think that in the vast middle of the nation, artists, consciously or not, draw their inspiration from and draw upon the biggest canvas they have: the outdoors.
For Ester Drang, the recording of their sophomore full-length Rocinate took them seemingly everywhere but back home. Captured on tape over three years’ of travel between Chapel Hill, Huntington Beach, Seattle and yes, Oklahoma, the album was finally pieced together in San Francisco. But even when stopping over in the Golden State, Rocinate breathed with an assorted range of sound that I think belies their Oklahoman origins.
Featuring 10 musicians, and instrumentation that includes trumpet, flugelhorn, violin, viola and lap steel, Rocinate is certainly an ambitious endeavor. It doesn’t surprise me to read that Ester Drang’s James McAllister and Jeff Shoop were featured heavily on Sufjan Steven’s brilliant genre-hopping history lesson, Illinois, perhaps finding a kindred spirit with similarly grandiose pop visions. Unfortunately, the similarities end there. Where Stevens’ songs, when stripped down to their essence are revealed to be compositionally strong and emotionally rich, there is curious emptiness at the core of Rocinate.
Certainly, the ingredients are all there for what should be a rich listening experience. Producer Scott Solter manages to take bits from multiple recording sessions and piece them together into one cohesive and huge sound. McAllister’s drums sound particularly gigantic, while the synths swirl and Shoop’s guitar lines shimmer like a pool of clear water. Alas, Ester Drang continually heaps instrumentation on each track to the point of deadening them. Worse, the melodies are particularly forgettable and too often, songs stretch out far longer than they need to.
Disc opener “Come Back Alive” is immediately emblematic of the kind of problems that plague the rest of the disc. The track starts off strongly, with a great hook and appropriately moody synths. The band moves seamlessly into a poppier chorus, the latter half of which is darkly inflected with horns and processed drums. At the two-minute mark, the song appears to come to its proper conclusion, which would’ve been a nice, compact introduction to the disc. Unfortunately, the band launch into an extended reprise of the song’s main theme for another two minutes that for all its bluster offers nothing particularly intriguing.
In other places, the band fills songs to their saturation point with instruments. Straight forwarded pop songs like “Valencia’s Dying Dream” are exhausted by constant retooling, while the Verve-lite “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” can’t hide it’s ineffective melody beneath the lush orchestration. By the latter half of the disc, the listener can be forgiven if they feel beaten into auditory submission, but it’s just as well as Rocinate settles into same-y drone for the rest of the way.
As a whole, the album is hamstrung by the band’s need to punctuate every moment or extend musical ideas far past their ability leave an impact. The result is an impeccably played and exquisitely produced bore.
It’s hard to write a music review about a band from Oklahoma without mentioning the Flaming Lips. Both bands are attempting the same wall-of-sound approach, but where Ester Drang stumbles is in connecting with their listeners. At the heart of the Flaming Lips lush sound is Wayne Coyne, who effortlessly conveys his wide-eyed musings on life and death.
I’ve listened to Rocinate more than few times now, and I have no idea what these songs are about or even what emotion they are supposed to be conveying. Ester Drang—like their name, which has no official meaning—is an enigma. Beautiful, exotic, haunted and hollow, Rocinate is a gorgeous Faberge egg of an album, that when split open, reveals… nothing inside.