Ester Drang: Rocinate

This Oklahoma trio's sophomore album is an gorgeous Faberge egg of an album, that when split open, reveals nothing inside.

Ester Drang


Label: Jade Tree
US Release Date: 2006-01-24
UK Release Date: 2006-02-13
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate

I don't know much about Oklahoma, but I don't imagine that much ever happens there. In doing some quick research on the State, I was surprised to learn it is one of only four states to be recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as having more than 10 distinct eco-regions within its borders. Located in the near dead center of the US, Oklahoma's terrain ranges from arid panhandles to rich forests, from sweeping prairie land to thick swamps. If the human population in the region is relatively quiet, Mother Nature is making up for it in spades, offering the State's citizens an elaborate and rich environmental display.

Being tucked away in the middle of what seems to those of us who are elsewhere, nowhere, I always find it inspiring that culture can still grow and thrive in the absence of an established "scene". People on the coasts tend to forget how lucky they are that major metropolitan areas are crammed so close together, and arts scenes thrive in these environs. For aspiring artists and musicians, inspiration is only your nearest exhibition or concert away, and there's probably a new event each week to sate creative desires. But I like to think that in the vast middle of the nation, artists, consciously or not, draw their inspiration from and draw upon the biggest canvas they have: the outdoors.

For Ester Drang, the recording of their sophomore full-length Rocinate took them seemingly everywhere but back home. Captured on tape over three years' of travel between Chapel Hill, Huntington Beach, Seattle and yes, Oklahoma, the album was finally pieced together in San Francisco. But even when stopping over in the Golden State, Rocinate breathed with an assorted range of sound that I think belies their Oklahoman origins.

Featuring 10 musicians, and instrumentation that includes trumpet, flugelhorn, violin, viola and lap steel, Rocinate is certainly an ambitious endeavor. It doesn't surprise me to read that Ester Drang's James McAllister and Jeff Shoop were featured heavily on Sufjan Steven's brilliant genre-hopping history lesson, Illinois, perhaps finding a kindred spirit with similarly grandiose pop visions. Unfortunately, the similarities end there. Where Stevens' songs, when stripped down to their essence are revealed to be compositionally strong and emotionally rich, there is curious emptiness at the core of Rocinate.

Certainly, the ingredients are all there for what should be a rich listening experience. Producer Scott Solter manages to take bits from multiple recording sessions and piece them together into one cohesive and huge sound. McAllister's drums sound particularly gigantic, while the synths swirl and Shoop's guitar lines shimmer like a pool of clear water. Alas, Ester Drang continually heaps instrumentation on each track to the point of deadening them. Worse, the melodies are particularly forgettable and too often, songs stretch out far longer than they need to.

Disc opener "Come Back Alive" is immediately emblematic of the kind of problems that plague the rest of the disc. The track starts off strongly, with a great hook and appropriately moody synths. The band moves seamlessly into a poppier chorus, the latter half of which is darkly inflected with horns and processed drums. At the two-minute mark, the song appears to come to its proper conclusion, which would've been a nice, compact introduction to the disc. Unfortunately, the band launch into an extended reprise of the song's main theme for another two minutes that for all its bluster offers nothing particularly intriguing.

In other places, the band fills songs to their saturation point with instruments. Straight forwarded pop songs like "Valencia's Dying Dream" are exhausted by constant retooling, while the Verve-lite "Hooker with a Heart of Gold" can't hide it's ineffective melody beneath the lush orchestration. By the latter half of the disc, the listener can be forgiven if they feel beaten into auditory submission, but it's just as well as Rocinate settles into same-y drone for the rest of the way.

As a whole, the album is hamstrung by the band's need to punctuate every moment or extend musical ideas far past their ability leave an impact. The result is an impeccably played and exquisitely produced bore.

It's hard to write a music review about a band from Oklahoma without mentioning the Flaming Lips. Both bands are attempting the same wall-of-sound approach, but where Ester Drang stumbles is in connecting with their listeners. At the heart of the Flaming Lips lush sound is Wayne Coyne, who effortlessly conveys his wide-eyed musings on life and death.

I've listened to Rocinate more than few times now, and I have no idea what these songs are about or even what emotion they are supposed to be conveying. Ester Drang -- like their name, which has no official meaning -- is an enigma. Beautiful, exotic, haunted and hollow, Rocinate is a gorgeous Faberge egg of an album, that when split open, reveals... nothing inside.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.