Ambient music and easy listening can exist dangerously close to one another's borders.
I can't help listen to Adam Pierce's band, Mice Parade, without the distinct feeling that there's some theory animating the execution of the music. Not theory in the cheap sense of a "noise" bands who depend on predictably idiotic panting from desperate-to-be-cool music scribes or theory in the sense of a group of graduate students trying to find an unloading zone for badly cribbed platitudes about postmodernism. With Mice Parade, it's more like an impression of an idea, like Pierce's multi-layered, international, ambient jam band is attempting to produce some sort of Zen-like state above the music. It's certain that his irreverent lack of structure and genre-buffet guitar work seem to come from a purposeful angle. That's as specific as I can be considering the number of times, while listening to this record, I wondered aloud: "What the hell are these people doing?" But mostly, I mean that in a nice way.
When vocals appear on the record, they barely eke their way in. Anna Valtysdottir's (from the Iceland band, Mum) singing on "Two, Three, Fall" barely comes up for air only to be submerged in soft-pedaled beats and Segovia guitar. On "Spain" her melodious exhale never even attempts to congeal into words, preferring, I gather, the unmoored drift of breezy non-language. "Focus on a Roller Coaster" is the closest Pierce comes to writing a standard song, but his hushed vocals soon give way to a hum of My Bloody Valentine white noise and veering tangents of keyboard. Whenever order or song frames emerge on obrigado saudade, they are quickly eroded and fed to the wind. While I sometimes admire this approach (some of my all-time favorite records have used this method to transcendental ends), I can't help but be frequently bored here or led astray into unfruitful nowhere. Much is made, in the band's bio, of the fact that Pierce records live, one instrument at a time, almost blindly building the resulting works. That sounds all well and good, but that simply creates songs woefully unaware of their contours, sometimes hitting an epic expanse, but other times just lurching with yawny, arbitrary momentum and ending out of sheer exhaustion.
Listening to the 11-minute wander of "Mystery Brethren", it's easy to hear more organic takes on bands like Seefeel and Mouse on Mars: fuzzy and warmly repetitious. "Wave Greeting" similarly mimes electronic music with drums that are more like stilted breakbeats and keyboards that cyclically tumble into each other before finally coming to rest in a skidding plateau of feathery feedback. "Here Today" takes summery boss nova slips of vocals and spins them in a backdrop that would be perfectly at home on a Thievery Corporation album. I can readily understand the pleasures of borrowing techno's hypnotic gifts while chucking the inorganic scrape of certain sounds. But the result tends to be just as fit for having your hair shampooed just like any number of other vaguely intercultural chillout room tracks. Give a bunch of high ons a sitar and a dub bassline line and suddenly they're Siddhartha. Not that some of Mice Parade's songs aren't fucking beautiful. "Guitars for Plants" sounds like a wonderfully open-ended Stars of the Lid track. But that's just it, Mice Parade make several more than adequate tracks in the vein of other artists, but never in any definitive way. Although they seem to swagger about the fact that this was recorded in someone's basement; I think that's the album's greatest downside, that it suffocates under the flippant air of a songwriter who just kind of likes to have friends pop in and screw around for awhile. Some of the world's greatest music begins that way, but for my buck, that's just a starting point and no reason at all to hit "record".
What makes this record set off attention-garnering flares is the taxingly deliberate, complex and layered acoustic guitar. Pierce's absolutely mesmerizes in his intercontinental fretwork, which builds softly, slowly and simply into towering intricacies. On "Focus on a Roller Coaster" Pierce plays so furiously his acoustic chords sound like skipping stones. Besides the undercurrent of Brazilian guitar, there's also a periodic, restrained Japanese bent to some of the music. "Out of the Freedom World" sounds like Tokyo tea steam and coy stocked garden ponds, with chords that tiptoe and climb with black lacquered elegance. "And Still It Sits In Front of You", plucks notes in a beautifully mantra-like circularity, reminding me Phil Elvrum's best moments with a few rudimentary, haunting notes. I know that Mice Parade are trying to remain a primarily instrumental band, making densely terraced songs with vocals thrown in on equal, if not secondary, footing to the instruments. However, the songs that reined my ADD the most were often the ones with Pierce's down and out murmur doing a walk through.
Ambient music and easy listening can exist dangerously close to one another's borders. In fact, many times, a mere change of context can make you realize how absurdly twinkling some down tempo music can be. At my doorman job, a place where repulsively rich retirees whittle away their last few scrooged years before karmic justice is served cold, I actually heard a Kruder and Dorfmeister track dumped in the muzak mix. Nestled amongst the usual whitewashed classical slop, it sounded remarkably ridiculous, like hipster music for doctor's offices. The final track, "Refrain Tomorrow", finally succumbs to the dark side of easy listening, unveiling a synth riff that would be perfect for purse shopping in a bustling mall. Ultimately, Mice Parade, oscillate between making loose, open-ended techno-twinged acoustic music that's truly intriguing and flailing around in a sleepy, directionless mess of dullery. I'm undecided verging on indifferent, which is probably where you'll end up if you stick around through repeated listens.