Expectations can be poisonous.
The only good expectations to have are low expectations, because, in any event, you can’t help but be pleased if things turn out even halfway decent. High expectations exist to become disappointments.
I’m not going to say I had immense expectations for Blue State’s third album, but I definitely had expectations. Their debut, 2000’s Nothing Changes Under The Sun, was very good, if slightly derivative. 2002’s Man Mountain was better, and it seemed as if some of the more calculated elements of their debut were beginning to dissipate. There was every expectation that The Soundings could very well have been their breakout album. But instead of crafting a direct sequel to their previous two records, Blue States has veered sharply leftward and into dangerous territory.
Blue States first two records barely made a splash when they first appeared stateside, and this is something of a shame. Blue States is the brainchild of multi-instrumental songwriter Andy Dragazis, Blue States rose to prominence in Britain as the first band signed to the fledgling Memphis Industries label. Distributed in America by the Thievery Corporation’s Eighteenth Street Lounge label, 2000’s Nothing Changes Under The Sun offered a refreshing mix of downtempo acid-jazz with the strong influence of ’60s-style instrumental psychedelia. Man Mountain upped the ante, approaching a near-perfect approximation of 60s instrumental pop with just a slight twinge of otherworldly melancholy. Based on these foundations, I felt that Blue States had it in them to surpass their early work and produce a blissed-out, retro-electronic pop masterpiece in the vein of Death in Vegas’ The Contino Sessions or Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.
But that’s not the record that Blue States decided to make. For one thing, they’ve got vocals now. There were certainly vocal elements on their previous two albums — in particular Tahita Bulmer’s excellent contributions to Man Mountain — but the first thing that you notice about The Soundings is that someone in the group is actually singing. That someone is the group’s co-songwriter and guitarist Chris Carr. Apparently, Blue States became a bona fide rock group when we weren’t looking.
But — and here’s the catch — the new sound fits them surprisingly well.
The album’s first track, “Across the Wire”, is a mournful elegy in the tradition of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.” Carr’s voice is more than a little redolent of Ian Curtis’ (if you subtract the obvious fact that Curtis was a deep baritone and Carr is a high tenor, the two share a similar trilled phrasing).
The album’s first instrumental, “One Night On Tulane”, is more in tune with my original expectations for the album. The interplay between a jangly rhythm guitar and a mournful trumpet builds to an appropriately majestic crescendo, with martial drumming and what sounds like a Hawaiian slide coming into play before the track finishes. “Tulane” fades into the opening chords of “The Last Blast”, perhaps the album’s catchiest track, a slice of optimistic pop that brings to mind the Polyphonic Spree covering the Stone Roses’ classic “I Am the Resurrection.”
Another dolorous instrumental, “Output”, follows “The Last Blast”, and is itself followed by “Final Flight”, perhaps the album’s most overt tribute to the Nuggets-era garage pop that informs the entire disc. The Soundings final track, the aptly named “Sad Song”, is perhaps the best example of the group’s newfound songwriting chops, with the type of joyously buoyant melodic movement that makes you believe in the power of pop music to create hope out of deep melancholia.
In case you haven’t guessed, I like the album. I will admit to having been considerably thrown by the fact that it wasn’t the album I expected to hear. This was not the follow-up to Man Mountain I expected them to record. But, to return to my original point, perhaps expectations exist to be subverted. After all, even Death in Vegas followed-up the near-perfect Contino Sessions with the seriously flawed Scorpio Rising, which sounded for the life of me like a conscious attempt to redo what had already been accomplished with Contino.
So, cheers to Blue States, for knowing what was good for me, even if I didn’t. I like The Soundings better with every listen. It’s subtle in all the right places, majestic when it needs to be, and with the exception of a few less-inspired ballads, is a damn fine album from start to finish.