Ester Drang's latest album might be one of the sleepers of 2003. The quartet, who toured most of this year behind this record, was recently involved in a serious car crash. A lady driving on the wrong side of the road rammed the band's tour bus. Unfortunately, she was killed, but thankfully she was the only person hurt. While such an accident, which completely destroyed the bus and most of the band's gear, might have a profound effect on future records, the album here is nearly brilliant. The fact that it comes in at less than forty minutes and nine songs is a glimpse of what is to come.
The orchestrated notes of the opener, "The Temple Mount", sound as if they've been stuck in London the last decade. Obvious references to Thom Yorke and Radiohead will be drawn by the first minute, but there is also a lovable sense of melodic Brit pop, complete with strings and a lush backdrop. "I'm picking up the pieces", the line goes, before it seems to flawlessly spiral out of control in an early '70s, Floydian structure. Singer Bryce Chambers gives a fine performance while the dreamy soundscape evolves. Sigur Ros might also be heard in spots, but not too often. By the three-minute mark, the guitars meet the symphony and a lovable, gorgeous hell breaks loose. "Dead Man's Point of View" is another example of dream pop that, when it works right, the benefits are extremely grand. In the vein of something off Kid A, the song rarely soars, but the touch of horn is special. Instead, it often crawls along the path that the Cure has made a great art out of.
Rounded out by Kyle Winner, James McAlister, and Jeff Shoop, Ester Drang aren't in a hurry to placate anyone, if "Oceans of You" is any indication. Throwing a bit of U2's anthem arena rock in with a hushed, near angelic vocal, the group nails this song with definite aplomb. Sounding like Oasis if they were in fact fronted by Mr. Rourke, er, Yorke, this song ebbs and flows often before breaking even two minutes. And the conclusion, my god, the conclusion might actually make you want to hit return on your disc player before you reach it! It's so bombastic, before being reeled back in again, that it nearly cheats the listener out of a larger finale. Unfortunately, the downside is that "One Hundred Times" doesn't surpass or meet the high bar of the preceding effort. Nonetheless, the shakers and '60s pop effort is refined with a quirky tempo for the first few verses. It brings Yo La Tengo to mind, with James McNew taking lead.
Pop rock is the exception for most of the record, but "The Greatest Thing" has some semblance of rock, albeit in a post-rock setting. The alt.rock guitar work and quasi-distorted vocals set the tone for the melodic pop ditty. It packs little else, though, but shows that the band can pretty much go and do what it wants with great ease and even greater success. "No One Could Ever Take Your Face" contains all the elements of Coldplay (though not to be confused with "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face"). Taking a lighter, folk-pop approach, the track is perhaps the moodiest of the nine presented. The funky Floyd bass line is present but doesn't dominate. "If They Only Knew" brings the old instrumental "A Summer's Place" to mind, but the piano-driven melody fuels it. If there's any fault, it might be the fact the strings come off far too sweet on this number.
Ester Drang totally misses the mark with the lullaby-esque "All the Feeling", a track rarely getting off the ground, but rather trudging along hoping for a breakthrough. Not exactly filler, but not "the" track of the record to be sure. "All this pleasure has left you empty", the lyric says, which could be talking about the album itself or the band recording this tune. The closing "I Don't Want to Live" is more a bubbly pop escapade than a reason for no longer existing. The piano work here is consistent and brings to mind Bowie's Outside album, containing a jazzy tickling style. Overall, though, this record shouldn't be ignored. Seek and ye shall find something great!