The Baltimore Trio's sophomore effort is a triumph, and not just because TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek is on the production.
Nowadays, seems you can’t read the name of the up-and-coming Baltimore group Celebration without the appendix “produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek”. OK, OK, we get it, that band provides one touchstone for the flagrant waffle describing the band’s sound (which I’ll get to, don’t worry). But though on their self-titled debut Celebration did share some of TV on the Radio’s momentary heft, their expanded palette on The Modern Tribe may actually be more TV on the Radio-esque. Not an explicit likeness, but informed by the same spirit of adventurous experimentation. And no, this record’s not great because Sitek’s sitting in the background pushing dials. Celebration has proven themselves a fascinating presence in their own right. By this measure, The Modern Tribe is a huge step up for the band.
You’d expect it from reading the player stats. Vocalist Katrina Ford has the kind of versatile and arresting voice that earned Shara Worden and Nina Nastasia their accolades (it can be quite conventional though, on one song, Ford sounds kind of like Linda Ronstadt). David Bergander uses his drums, like Battles’ John Stanier, both as an instrument of ferocity and of shifting, straining patterns. And anchoring the whole team, Sean Antanaitis showcases versatility, expanding the group’s sound while simultaneously demonstrating a remarkable restraint. Of course Sitek’s a part of this, his contribution may be the expert way in which atmosphere’s been incorporated into each of these songs, deepening their impact.
But The Modern Tribe is certain to draw Celebration further away from their TV on the Radio’s associations. Though members of the band, along with those of Antibalas and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, contribute to some of the material here, it’s the way that the three core musicians in Celebration interact provides this album’s real magic. Take the melodic high point, “Heartbreak”; over staid organ chords and a tapping percussion that gradually shifts into polyrhythms, Ford and Antanaitis’ voices screech a glorious and entirely unpredictable verse. As the track loops upward into a tattle of cacophonous voices and a wall of brass, you might hear hints of Animal Collective and hints of Stars but the combined effect’s all Celebration. They stay true to the sense of their name, too, despite the words: “Cos you’re heartbreak, and I’m addicted to you”.
Don’t be fooled by “Evergreen” and “In This Land”. “Heartbreak” shows a band that has developed an intuitive understanding of the way texture can be used to develop ideas, to change the sense of a simple melody and underscore basic emotions. “Evergreen” opens things on a strong note; its chemical magic has been receiving some attention after the release of the video, check it out and you’ll see what I mean. “In This Land” is more relentless, a stomping orchestral rock song with saxophones (!) off chasing some demented dragonfly against the sense of the song and the combination with Ford’s strung-out, smoky voice momentarily recalling Blonde Redhead.
But the group also haven’t abandoned the more muscular rock underpinning that ran through Celebration. The elements of Battles-style math rock, complex drum rhythms and loops of overdriven guitar are combined with shouty vocals and the occasional break into straight-out dance rock. A few times, as on “Hands Off My Gold”, they go for a catchphrase that doesn’t fit with the musical accompaniment, here, the complex, tribal guitars deserve something more hard-hitting.
In fact, the range of sounds on The Modern Tribe is one of its obvious strengths. So much so that listening to the record becomes a delightful game of ‘What’s up next?’ And while there may be a connecting thematic thread through all the tracks, a glance at the song titles brings to mind a bizarre carnival of modern man’s motivations, all this is subsumed by the group’s exuberant musical curiosity. It may be true that “the world it’s just begun / To tame the savage heart of man”. But Celebration’s hearts seem far from tame and of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way.