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Christmas Decorations: Model 91

Anthony C. Bleach

Christmas Decorations

Model 91

Label: Kranky
US Release Date: 2002-10-21
UK Release Date: Available as import

Christmas Decorations are a duo comprised of Steve Silverstein (a.k.a. Madame Estrella -- his improvised rock nom de stage -- and writer for Tape Op magazine, one of the most frighteningly brainy periodicals devoted to recorded music) and Nick Forte (an ex-member of hardcore punk behemoths Rorschach -- one of the most frighteningly intense bands ever -- and Computer Cougar -- one of the most frighteningly underappreciated progenitors of the current electro/punk/trash revival plaguing Brooklyn, New York). Model 91, their debut, was recorded using guitar, bass, positively ancient digital sequencers, and occasional vocals (more on this below); its interesting and challenging compositions recall weirdo one-time Factory Records artist Ike Yard, the enigmatic Nocturnal Emissions, and even modern composers like Wolfgang Voight.

My (over)use of the word frightening in the paragraph above is intentional. Despite their yuletidey name, on the first half of the record, the band comes closest to evoking the gothic world imagined in Tim Burton's film The Nightmare Before Christmas and the barren snowy wastes on which the Coca-Cola polar bears frolic in sugar-and-caffeine induced giddiness and empty good cheer than it does to a warm Norman Rockwell hearth-and-home tableau. And the music on all of the 13 ambient-influenced pieces is more concerned with the minute sonorities of the wind whooshing through the trees and the harmonics of bells (jingle or otherwise), rather than the doorstep carols sung by your neighbors.

It's odd that the early pieces on this record come across as so dark, since the band prefers to combine together "natural" sounds and textures, eschewing vocals altogether. For example, mousey squeaks and rutting dingo sounds erupt rhythmically during "Small Window", a cooing dove is buried deep inside the resonant and beautiful "Brittle Stem", and a hissing snake writhes through the insidious "Opto-isolator". Given some snazzy government funding, the first six pieces could be a released as a remixed field recording of the Crocodile Hunter's audio recordings of Australian wildlife.

On "Orange Suit", however, distorted harmonized vocals and dumb lyrics (It actually pains me to type "I often make / The same mistake / I offered you / An orange suit"), accompanied by a melodica, enter the tableau. All of a sudden, Christmas Decorations stops being thought-expanding music and starts being plain annoying. This piece -- and many of the ones following it -- sounds like a reject from a Men's Recovery Project 7-inch. (Interestingly, that band, like this one, comes from a hardcore punk pedigree and also doles out stunning compositions and stunningly lame sub-Jad Fair whimsy in equal parts.) "A Random Hill" is a loping cowpoke ballad, while "Lowlands" sounds like someone lost in an electronic dungeon. Although the feeling of being isolated in one's surrounding certainly comes through on these two pieces, their reliance on the human voice is jarring. Faring much better on the be-vocaled half of this release is "Tables and Chair", which uses the voice as another abstract strata for the composition, rather than as a random communiqué on top of it. (Maybe the latter half of the record does sound like Christmas carols, albeit ones slurred by the wino down the block.)

This is why the experience of listening to "Sequence 3", the final wordless piece on here, is a disconcerting one. The pieces that come before it grate with aimless lyrics and tuneless voices (yes, they can and do harmonize to nice effect on "A Random Hill", but as the scene in Top Gun illustrates, drunken airmen do not the Righteous Brothers make), so, paradoxically, you come to expect and are listening out for something on "Sequence 3" that does not arrive. It's a shame, because this is one of the prettier compositions on here; it sounds like a chiming William Orbit and deserves a great remix.

I think that herein lies the problem with Model 91. It's almost as if the record demands both a (Western?) style of listening that focuses on lyrics and the vocal line, and a style of listening that focuses on textures, layers, abstraction. And this is just too much. It's not that Christmas Decorations' ambition has got the better of them on here; it's that their ambition has sadly got the better of us.

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