It's hard to believe that the Comas supposedly started out as a Chapel Hill area joke band, their sound a less than sympathetic wink at the burgeoning alt-country movement. In a scant 6 years, the band has turned into a pretty respectable rock band, progressing from the basic indie leanings and slowcore vibe of 1999's Wave to Make Friends to the slightly more varied textures of 2000's Def Needle in Tomorrow (a record that hinted at greatness, even if it didn't always deliver).
Flash forward to 2004, and Conductor finds the Comas getting even closer to that brass ring at which few people initially thought they had a shot. You'd be hard-pressed to find an indie rock record with a better one-two punch than the one that starts Conductor. "The Science of Your Mind" unleashes a menacing synth line over a pulsing Kylie Minogue-ish dance groove circa "Can't Get You Out of My Head", sounding as if the band has struck gold exploring the mash-up mentality of blending together supposedly incompatible songs. Hot on the heels of that is the gentle male/female vocal interplay of "Moonrainbow", in which Nicole Gehweiler offers an ethereal counterpoint to every dismissal of simple pleasures that Andy Herod's stanzas offer. It's the kind of song the Beautiful South seem to write in their sleep, but it raises high expectations here, representing a quantum leap forward in the Comas' sound.
From there it's the Pixies-ish drone and fuzz of "Tonight on the WB", which offers a nifty blurring of the line between art and reality when you consider that Comas leader Herod's breakup with Dawson's Creek's Michelle Williams fueled much of the bitterness that runs through Conductor like a fast-moving stream. That bit of People-informed gossip certainly isn't necessary, however, to enjoy sentiments like "your windows are blacked out from bad things like real love" on their own merits. Cure-like strains of twilight sci-fi inform "The Last Transmission", with its imagery of space battles, interstellar queens, and final stands. "Hologram", for its part, updates the Pixies fetish of "Tonight on the WB" for Frank Black's later, more esoteric style around Teenager of the Year. Weezer could ride "Employment" to the bank and more gold records. "Dirty South" gets good mileage from left-of-kilter guitar that wouldn't be out of place on a Modest Mouse record or Metallica song intro.
As those comparisons might hint, it's still pretty easy -- despite the group's rapid creative growth -- to fit the Comas into the same slots as the bands that arguably inspired their songs. Granted, the band follows paths with a high personality quotient, but they still remind you too much of other bands, instead of feeling like the band that's finding its own unique voice. In the end, with a bit of distance from the first thrilling listens, the Comas still sound like they're still getting all the pieces in place. Ironically, one of the disc's most effective tracks, "Falling", jettisons many of the album's trappings for a simple, stripped-down approach.
However, that "critical distance" is the key element to criticizing Conductor, and its not always particularly helpful. While you're listening to Conductor, you're caught up in every guitar blast, sonic swoon, and clever piece of instrumentation the band throws at you, objectivity be hanged. Thankfully, the languid indie-by-numbers vibe that plagued a portion of the band's early work seems to have been burned away by their obvious enthusiasm for seeing where their interests will take them. Regardless of the band's less than storied beginnings, or whatever heartbreaks brought them to where they stand, the Comas are quickly becoming a band to be reckoned with.
NOTE: Initial pressings of Conductor come with an album-length DVD film/video, beautifully shot and very reminiscent of Dark City with its watery-textured cityscapes (although that's as far as the comparison goes). It's definitely worth checking out, especially after you've gotten comfortable with the record. It was interesting for this viewer to see how images reinforced the album's themes and made Conductor's story noticeably more apparent -- even when the film's scenes didn't seem to have anything to do with the lyrics.