-->
Music

City Center: City Center

Fred Thomas of Saturday Looks Good to Me creates a city of sound and almost gets lost in the noise. Thankfully, that's kind of the theme.


City Center

City Center

US Release: 2009-05-26
UK Release: 2009-05-26
Label: Type
Amazon
iTunes

Though you may not have heard of him, Fred Thomas has an oeuvre that could fill up the room. He’s been compared to everybody from Stephen Merritt to Jeff Magnum to Ariel Pink in his songwriting capabilities. As the showrunner behind Saturday Looks Good to Me, he conducted a vast and magnanimous library of lo-fi indie powerpop. As an occasional member of His Name Is Alive, he saw the band move from its ethereal origins into expansive territories encompassing free jazz, country, surf, and other miscellaneous divergences. It’s fair to say the man knows his way around a good melody, but also isn’t bound by one.

It’s not surprising, then, that City Center, which was a Thomas solo project until Saturday member Ryan Howard joined the group after the debut album was recorded, is a chance for Thomas to branch out even further. Yet, the sound on City Center’s debut self-titled LP is not so much an abandonment of the Saturday Looks Good to Me aesthetic as an obfuscation of those pop-ulist sounds into something far more intimate. “The breaking is an opening”, remarks Thomas in “Young Diamond”, a song whose lyrics read like a close friend guiding you through a bad trip.

There’s a pop core to City Center’s debut, but it’s a sliver of one, blown aback by Flying Saucer Attack-level layers of reverb, countless knobs tweaking effect pedals in every which direction, and a bold retreat from rhythm, or at least conventional rhythm. This puts him distinctly in the peer group that this new brand of sunbaked, loop-based, psychedelic, circuit-bent folk that bros like Panda Bear, High Places, Fuck Buttons, and Ducktails call home.

Yet, as luminescent as City Center gets, which is to say about as much as the neon skyline of its namesake, the album is actually kind of a harrowingly lonely affair. Those reassuring voices in “Young Diamond” call from beyond a drowned world of progressive volume, which sweeps away the song’s voices as they beckon “We won’t let you starve / We won’t let you fail” and “I know Baltimore can be a scary place and so can New York / So can everywhere outside / And you feel all alone / But you’re not alone”. This loneliness is a harrowing fear for Thomas, who posted the album’s lyrics online. “When you are alone, you are a force”, states the song “You Are a Force”, but “Summer School” contends “No one hears you when you are alone”.

Like Liz Harris’s devastating cherubic coos as Grouper on last year’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, perhaps the seminal release of Type Records, which also houses City Center, a lyric sheet is not essential to experiencing the aforementioned solicitude. Thomas’s lyrics prove too cryptic to immediately decipher or extract specific meaning from, but themes flow throughout that suggest the city and its artifices as anthropomorphic beings reinforcing this sullen loneliness. The outside world, like the music itself, is miswired. The opening tremolo of “Killer Whale” emphasizes this alienation. “The places we are are cold and slow” and the “landscape is littered with thoughtless flow”, the song says. “I can’t reach you”, Thomas mourns.

Despite his efforts at contact, the album’s tracks seem to ring out in defeat by way of the arrangements. Many tracks end with dissipation into an etheric effects and droning rubato, while others change course with little interest in finishing what they started. It’s a concept that works best as an album-length obsession than a single-serving, song-by-song chapter book. Like Grouper’s album, much of City Center's pleasure is in the distillation of pure feeling rather than the drama of narrative, though the occasionally acrobatic handling of effects processors scrapes by more than its share of the latter as well.

“Life Was a Problem” is a brief piece that’s like cargo being carted around, instruments eventually hitting bumps in the road. The feedback interlude of “Open/House” threatens to unwind the tape from the reel and directly cuts in half (literally, as it appears in the song’s center) the chances of the album’s most accessibly jangle-folk anthem from becoming lead single material. “Cloud Center” is drenched in choral background vocals and a din of backwards-masked harmonies, and appears as the album’s nine-minute centerpiece.

Occasionally, the noises, though generally tuned to a pleasantly evocative timbre with the weight and depth of Fennesz’s best, overwhelm the vocals, making the human voices almost supplemental. The vocals are already sung rather effetely, lacking much of the robust melodic resonance of Brooklyn peers Animal Collective, an odd choice for someone with Thomas’s pop chops. By having Thomas’s larynx shrink behind walls of sound, the music’s presence is slightly dulled. And part of what makes Thomas’s and Animal Collective’s mixes so enthralling are the ways in which they take a dubiously persistent and perhaps otherwise useless loop and transform it into something transcendent.

On City Center, the determined push of man (voice) versus the elements (noise) seems to be part of an ongoing struggle, a fight against fading away and being absorbed into the city. “Who’ll be the first one erased? / I get off work at seven o’clock / And then I get replaced”, Thomas says on “Bleed Blood”. “The waves come to eat you / You know you don’t get through the way you used to”, he says on “Killer Whale”. After making a million songs only a couple people have heard, it’s understandable for Thomas to harbor a little insecurity. He captures this brilliantly though in his work with City Center, and perhaps you can help him out by giving his densely-populated-yet-naked, dark-yet-glowing latest a spin.

8

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less
7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image