Bren Mead and Sean Rawls, dual leaders of Athens' Masters of the Hemisphere, are eternal indie-pop pranksters, whose cache of irresistible hooks is dwarfed only by their surplus of inside jokes.
Since forming the Masters a few years back with drummer Jeff Griggs and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Finch, the boys have continually spiked strong, heartfelt songwriting with childish playfulness and collegiate wit. To some, it's career sabotage, while others think it's simply icing on the cake.
The Masters of the Hemisphere first appeared in the late '90s with a promising single and then a surprisingly assured debut album, both released on Athens' now renowned Kindercore Records. This was just before Kindercore ballooned to international cult status, and it could be argued that the Masters played some considerable part in building the label's buzz.
That eponymous debut, just eight songs on which Mead and Rawls took equal turns with lead singing/songwriting responsibilities, won comparisons to established purveyors of airy indie-pop like Holiday and Belle & Sebastian. The songs were deliciously soft and sweet, while still showcasing a growing sense of quirky humor.
"Billy Mitchell" told the appropriated tale of the man who founded the Air Force, whereas "Everybody Knows Canada" got in any number of digs at our Neighbors to the North. A tear-jerking ballad named "Saucy Foreign Lass" and scribbled bits of Epicurean Philosophy on the album sleeve only hinted at further hi jinks.
In an interview to support their debut, Mead and Rawls talked about kickball games with other Athens bands, which they claimed always digressed into dogpiles. They also spoke of something called "Running Club", which was really just a bunch of college kids jumping into a river heavy with rapids. Most frightening of all, though, they mentioned that their sophomore album would be a concept album based on a comic book of their own design. And as usual, you couldn't quite tell whether they were kidding or not.
Well, they weren't kidding, and that sophomore effort, 2000's I Am Not a Freemdoom, continues to confound listeners even today. See, the album follows the adventures of two heroes pitted against Freemdoom, an evil dog that's been polluting an island paradise. Read what you will into those metaphors, but it's safe to say that nobody was fully prepared for such a whimsical album, especially with a crudely drawn comic book included.
Ironically, Freemdoom was a giant leap for the band musically, with baroque shades of strings and horns sweeping across epic pop anthems that were now being compared to masters like the Kinks and the Beach Boys. If these gorgeous songs hadn't revolved around such an absurd plotline, it's arguable that the Masters of the Hemisphere could've almost hit it big on the strength of the record.
As is, most people dismissed the effort as an adolescent joke, ignoring the increasingly mature craftsmanship within. Not much was heard from the Masters for two years, but thankfully, they've now returned with The Permanent Stranger EP. Beyond being a six-song primer for their third album, Protest a Dark Anniversary, due out this month on Kindercore, the EP finds the band couching silly humor safely within knockout pop songs.
The opening track -- "Summertime, That's When the Good Times Start" -- speaks volumes, really. It's a sublime bit of classicist pop informed by indie-rock urgency, tackling the eternal theme of changing seasons. No alien dogs, no tropical vistas, no comic books. Just good old-fashioned craft.
The following title track, "Permanent Stranger", is nicely moody with an ever-so-slight surf tinge. "When People Were Younger" addresses the issue of growing old, typically taboo for forever-young indie kids. The too brief "Time Passes Slowly" comes almost in answer to that last song, offering this nugget of wisdom -- "Settle down and take a break / Don't be in such a hurry". Well put.
"Chance of Growing Apart" continues the somber line of thought, slowed down to a crawl and flecked with sparkling bits of harmonies and embellishment. It's the kind of song you put on a mix tape for the person you're dating, only to have it bring you both to tears when the two of you are breaking up in the car one night.
To close the EP on an upbeat note, "Uncola" suddenly jerks to attention, a gangly gem featuring the crackling high vocals of multi-instrumentalist Finch, who is also playing with Elf Power and the Summer Hymns these days. He even has a solo album due soon on dcBaltimore2012, the young Athens label responsible for Permanent Stranger.
Some will find the song impossibly annoying, but for my money, it's an infectious, if squawky, blast of fresh air. When Finch sings, "You can't possibly know what's in the majority's heart" and later "Advertisements are as stupid as they've ever been", it almost feels like a head-bobbing rebirth of awkward indie-rock/pop.
The Permanent Stranger EP may be hard to track down, being on such a small label, but the effort will be rewarded by six great songs from a band that's finally come into its own, without alienating everyone quite so much. And it's a delightful prelude to the Masters of the Hemisphere's upcoming Protest a Dark Anniversary, which I've heard and can tell you is going to be one of the best pop albums this year. No joking.