Some of the best debut albums come from young artists who grow up in remote, soul-crushingly mundane settings, who spend all their time holed up in their own little world, piecing together their own twisted brand of pop music in hopes of transcending all the dullness around them. Mountaineers know all about this. Growing up in the small Welsh town of Hope, the band says there were two options for young people: go smoke pot on the local mountain, or go take acid on the local mountain. Like another good young British band who hail from a tiny town, the Coral, Mountaineers have emerged from out of nowhere with a weird, yet very enjoyable first album that seems as fresh as the cool, humid mountain air from which they hail.
Unlike the Coral, whose blues-drenched, maritime-meets-garage rock gives them a decidedly retro feel, Mountaineers, who now base themselves out of Liverpool, are keeping their eyes forward. The trio of singer/guitarist Alex Germains, programmer Ceri James, and drummer Tomas Kelar take their cue from today's best pop innovators and mad geniuses, such as the Flaming Lips, fellow Welshmen Super Furry Animals, and Grandaddy. This is a band who loves a good hook and is completely unafraid to throw in any kind of sound they can get their hands on in an effort to try something new, and what do you know, but on their new album, Messy Century, they pull it off with great skill, and even greater audacity.
If you're going to compare this album to any recent record, Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump would be the closest thing, only Mountaineers have not yet achieved the lyrical skill that Grandaddy's Jason Lytle possesses. What the band lacks in lyric writing is made up for in the actual music, which, like Grandaddy, combines easygoing indie pop with a strong techno element. James proves he's an absolute whiz at programming, coming close to venturing into the more adventurous realm of folktronica (Four Tet, Manitoba), but despite the fact that most of the songs possess similar cut-and-paste characteristics as a laptop/IDM sonic pastiche, the bottom line with these guys is the melody, as every electronic element winds up surrendering to the undeniable hooks these songs have.
Messy Century is an odd jumble of songs, but it has an effervescent, ebullient charm to it that's irresistible. The first single, "Ripen", has a decidedly Flaming Lips feel to it, with its bleeping samples, insistent "Fight Test"-style beat, acoustic guitar, synth touches, and esoteric lyrics (Germains actually rhymes "appetite" with "treat your apple right"). "It's Solid" has a 1969 Beatles feel to it, with its lugubrious pace and layered vocal harmonies, while, conversely, the wonderfully euphoric "I Gotta Sing" rivals any of head Flaming Lip Wayne Coyne's happiest songs, a winning combination of acoustic folk, violin, and electronic effects. "UK Theatre" is McCartneyesque, its gentle, acoustic melody elevated by James's swirls of noises that never overwhelm the song, and the plaintive "Gruppen" bears a strong similarity to the work of Rufus Wainright. "All My Life" is beautiful, as Germains delivers a sweet, soulful, Cat Stevens-style vocal performance, while the album comes to a quiet, spaced-out conclusion with the languid "Silent Dues".
Close to half of the album has the band getting a bit more experimental, which is the real challenge to the listener. "Sewing" has Germains' heavily processed vocals commingling with a psychedelic techno arrangement, something not too far from what the Beta Band does, but much more engaging. "Belgique Limb" is a bit sloppy, sounding like a mess for the sake of making a mess, but the band rights themselves quickly on the more restrained electronic tones of "Want to Write You" and the more complete-sounding techno-meets-electro song "Bom Bom". "Apart from This" is a real winner; it comes straight in from left field, with its contagious dance beat and vocoder-enhanced singing, but doesn't waste any time showing its human side, injecting a soul-tinged, "I'd rather be there with you", into its smooth chorus. Like Super Furry Animals' "Juxtapozed With U", it completely blindsides you with the sheer incongruousness of it all, and it works, big time.
The kind of kitchen-sink, glitch style of pop music Mountaineers are trying to create is a tough thing to do, let alone on your first time out, but this band has done it, with only a minimum of negative results. Messy Century might have a lot of extraneous noises, lyrics too absurd for their own good, and a heavy dose of processed vocals, but the melodies always win out, and the pure, simple fun of it all makes the album so pleasant. The sky's the limit for this band; they're indeed a major talent.