Guided By Voices associates Tim and Todd Tobias create a satisfying album of deceptively intricate indie rock.
As someone whose formative musical years came during the indie-rock boom era of the early-to-mid-'90s, I'll always hold a soft spot in my heart for bands like Clouds Forming Crowns. The self-titled album from this Ohio group -- a low-key, family affair between brothers Tim and Todd Tobias, recorded largely on four-track cassette and eight-track reel -- has the feel of many records from last decade. There's little grand ambition, no flash, no big statement. It's simply a large collection (16 tracks in all) of concise, well-crafted songs that displays a definite knack for tunefulness and intricacy.
If this description sounds similar to another Ohio group, it's not just a coincidence. Clouds Forming Crowns has no shortage of connections to Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices. Tim Tobias, the principal songwriter/lyricist/singer/guitarist for CFC served a five-year stint as GBV's bassist, performing on Isolation Drills, Earthquake Glue and Universal Truths and Cycles. Todd, whose role in CFC is described as providing "musical backup", produced the latter two of those GBV albums as well as their swan song, last year's Half Smiles of the Decomposed.
The GBV influences aren't hard to pick out on this record, but the songs that sound most like something from the Pollard songbook are among the least effective here. "Are You Sleeping Well?" announces itself with a big, major-chord riff, the type that followed a sloppily shouted "1, 2, 3, 4!" from Pollard thousands of times. But despite a lifetime of cigarettes and alcohol, Pollard was still able to give his power pop numbers the soaring vocal melodies needed to make them classics. Tim Tobias has less range with his rough, raspy drawl, which limits the upward mobility of the most instrumentally rousing numbers here. "Sleeping Well" and "Wish-Hound" seem like they should be the most accessible songs here with their classic structure, big riffs and catchy solos. But instead they tend to drag and sound like the output of anyone of a dozen or so garage bands in your hometown.
The highlights over the course of the rest of the album are more than enough to overcome these shortcomings, though. Opener "Accidents of Air" is about as perfect as lo-fi indie rock comes. Todd Tobias shows that lo-fi production doesn't necessarily mean sloppy, haphazard production, utilizing multi-layered acoustic guitars and vocals during the song's intro. The juxtaposition of the airy guitars during the verse and the fuzzy distortion during the chorus is especially effective, and the drums crack with extra vibrancy. It heavily recalls some of the finer moments from Olivia Tremor Control's Dusk at Cubist Castle, which is high praise indeed. "Dreaming of Flying" doesn't pack quite the punch as "Accidents" but exists in that same enjoyable, slightly acid-fried terrain.
Elsewhere, CFC evokes another lo-fi Ohio duo with Guided By Voices ties, Swearing at Motorists. (Although, to be fair, after the band's 20-plus year career it might be hard to find anyone in Ohio who doesn't have GBV ties.) SaM have released three somewhat moody, introspective lo-fi rock albums on Secretly Canadian over the past few years, and songs like the plaintive "Let's Bleed" ("And the battles will be broken/ And we'll enter heaven/ We are the new ghosts") and the deliberate, and eventually driving "Blades and Teeth" could fit in on any of those albums. These songs are deceptively intricate, which could be said for most of the tracks on here, and it helps give the album an identity.
Like most albums with 16 songs, there are a few too many. We could have done without the faux-funk of "Night When People Go Fast", for example, which might keep people from getting to the delightful "Night Playing Tricks", which serves as a perfect campfire sing/strum-along album closer. But on a record that has only two songs pass the three-and-a-half minute mark, the misses are brief enough so that they take little away from this enjoyable album.