In a not-so-bizarre-these-days instance of television imitating life, the Australian freshman outfit Ides of Space were featured on this week's Dawson's Creek. The Creek has its own music guide -- a throwback to the days when the show was an innovator in terms of exploiting the barely legal market. From this hideously detailed how-to guide for the culturally tone deaf, I learned that the song "This Side of the Screen" was playing as Dawson walked down the stairs on his way to see a shrink (his mother just died -- an episode that nearly collapsed under the weight of its own formulaic pathos). This means, by the way, that if you were particularly moved at any moment during the episode, you can track that feeling down and purchase it in CD form.
Though I'm highly tempted to detour into a treatise on Dawson's Creek and the premature nostalgia of the twentysomething set for the barely cold corpse of its youth, I'll restrict myself to the following observations. One, Ides of Space sound an awful lot like the bands like Seam or Luna, circa 1994 -- the very period that Dawson's Creek's writers, in all their nostalgia, are targeting via the transparent artifice of small town teen angst. Two, they sound so damn polished and tight, that it is no wonder that the youth culture mainstream -- ever ravenous for plausible indie creds but shy of a less-than-professional sound -- snapped them up.
Neither of these points is meant to discredit the Ides of Space themselves, who are remarkably adept at producing lush yet precious melody, rocking guitar lines and a sense of wistfulness all at once. It is surprising that they sound so polished on their first release-- but this polish is not the result of corporate packaging or overproduction. Guitarists Mark Ayoub and Patrick Haid expertly mix fuzz and reverb to create a sound both thick and delicate. Even when they're just in a full-on strumfest, as on "Random Noise Generator", the minute long outtro is a brilliant pastiche of similar Pixies or Sonic Youth devolutions.
"This Side of the Screen" is certainly a winning leadoff track, with its moody, lackadaisical guitar line and thrumming bass. The tone changes entirely when the thick distortion guitar comes in on the bridge, swallowing the rest in a sort of mawkish groove. "Arthur's Car" is a lighter, more up-tempo number that will doubtless set teenage fans a-bouncing when the Ides of Space make it to the US next year; yet for all its hooky charm, the muddy, thick guitar places the aesthetic much closer to rock than pop. Same for "Keep Writing", which employs keyboard strings but whose thick bass and drum backbone make it meatier fare than the self-referential bubblegum we've come to love of late.
Haid's vocals remind me an awful lot of Seam's Sooyoung Park -- breathy and intimate but never fully articulated, often double-tracked, always impressionistic. In fact, the Seam comparison trumps all others, at least to my ear: the mix of sweet reverberating arpeggio, moody bass, and distorted, ripping choruses would fit in perfectly on albums like The Problem with Me. Insofar as Seam once sported Superchunk's Mac on drums and that the Pixies/Sonic Youth/Hüsker Dü holy trinity is present in all music of the period, Ides of Space also stand within that tradition.
In that sense, there's not much new here. What is unusual is the flawless execution -- artful feedback, rising strum intensity, crashing waves of distorted guitar -- all of this is done with a facility that bands like Seam never really had. Back then it was cool to sound a little awkward or a little unrehearsed. It's just like Dawson's Creek: though you may have been a spotty, awkward mess at sixteen, you can watch Katie Holmes and reimagine a lissome, articulate version of your youthful agonies. Listen to the Ides of Space and experience a deft, masterful rendering of all those earnest indie strivings.