Third album by Athens indie outfit resists the "experimental third" tag, with the arty and pop influences meeting in the middle.
At the end of the year, it's typical to reflect on lessons learned. Did your best friends stick up for you when you needed them most? Maybe it's time to be less overtly nice to your boss, and pass on open bar tequila at weddings. You might think you could stand to buy a few (hundred) less records (that credit card interest won't pay itself down).
No matter how much we overanalyze and rethink the past year in music, 2010 shouldn't have changed anyone's opinion of Athens, Georgia, that sleeper college town ready for another crack at dominance after a lull between seismic shifts in the rock 'n roll mantle. After all, Elephant Six's rise was two presidents ago, and America just now has a fearless leader with an appreciation for left-of-the-dial acts.
It's difficult to see where Modern Skirts will stand in Athens's next musical wave. Much of the tiny explosions in the blogosphere light up bands making music as if it were a night at the museum, either as uncomfortable freak-rock installations or studiously calm lectures. And then there's Modern Skirts, who feel like new friends you meet for dinner afterward.
Gramahawk is a strange beast, befitting its weird little title; an album that sometimes doesn't know if it wants to be arty or poppy, even given the perfect position in the discography as the "experimental third album". For Bowie acolytes who finally need to take Hunky Dory out of rotation, and Yeasayer fans who like their melodies buzzier still, here's your platter. The music has the qualities that have come out of Athens for years since the hoards of R.E.M. imitators got real jobs: treated falsetto harmonies, polyurethane guitars, and the ever-present ghost of whimsical '60s pop creeping through an empty art school hallway. Gramahawk recalls Of Montreal if Kevin Barnes chose to rock out a little more -- "Bridges and Overpasses" starts with mid-tempo drum thud that sounds like Phil Spector setting up shop in the Grand Canyon -- but that's only part of the lineage.
This pop has bite: "Happy 81", carried over from its eponymous EP, rides the same skittery beat U2 grooved on for Pop's "Miami". Modern Skirts might be line-toers, but they're not time-wasters: the harmonies on opener "Jane Child" are inviting yet the overall effect is chilly, especially as singer Jay Gulley unravels, letting loose some David Byrne-esque wails before the song fades out in a wisp of minor key melancholy.
With the balance of weird and well-trodden in place, Gulley does some reflecting of its own. He indulges in his wild side, taking his date's top off while a Mariachi band loudly encourages ("Shipshape"), but he's as quick to reflect on how it has gotten him in trouble -- on "DUI", Gulley sounds fairly content for a song about the drunken bust that wasn't his first. He sounds ready to give ("This heart is so gargantuan…I won't tear your heart out like those other men") but like all of us, especially around the holidays, eager to receive as well (as in forgiveness, on the woozy carnivalia of "DUI" -- "I'm begging you pretty please"). Of course, this is all reward for those with superb headphones, intent on making out the lyrics, which remain varying degrees of muffled. Sound familiar for an Athens band?
The pop isn't perfect -- it's jagged, thin, even occasionally grating -- but Modern Skirts wouldn't have it any other way. A hometown isn't an automatic seal of quality, but don't try to expect anything less from Gramahawk either.