Nurse & Soldier: Marginalia

Nurse & Soldier

There’s a reason why fans of Oneida stay as fiercely loyal as they do — it’s because Oneida is a band that enjoys frolicking in genres, discovering new instruments, new arrangements, and new sounds on a continual basis, while still grounding such rabid exploration in a digestible 4/4 context. Yet if you are, like many, not familiar with Oneida, then fear not what lies ahead: as you will discover, a pop side project of one particular Oneidan (Bobby Matador) with his longtime collaborator Erica Fletcher. It’s Mates of State with a touch of stoner crank; it’s a ’60s psych-rock record tossed into a modern-day studio; it’s an album that’s just … fun.

Any diehards will know that Marginalia is actually the second album from the duo, but the first eponymous 7″ is a rarity to find these days, and perhaps for the better: it was a dry-run of some of the stoner-rock numbers that Oneida did just fine by itself (though “The 7-11 Song” proved quite amusing). Here, Matador and Fletcher enter the ring with a stronger sense of focus, and limit their attack to not just guitars and keyboards this time around. Even though the five-minute (long by N&S standards) opening song “Green Tea” is one of Marginalia’s weaker moments, it still manages to make the most out its simplistic-yet-mysterious keyboard riff, firmly standing in defiance of the fuzz and haze of their first outing. Standing in even further defiance is “In the Dark” — a drumless and reverb-heavy pop number that’s as bitterly sweet as it is catchy:

False ends and false starts

From rattling in my heart

Hardly an angel

Losing my halo in the dark

In the dark

Motion all dry and

Gorge on a lie and

Where are the warm hands

Big eyes and no demands in the dark?

In the dark

The song ends in a toned-down-yet-still-ravenous guitar freakout that’s barely audible, as the song exhausts itself passing the three-minute mark. Already, it’s is one of the landmark pop moments of 2007 — it’s really that good.

What’s unfortunate is how the rest of the album never rises to the self-imposed levels of brilliance exhibited on “In the Dark.” Take a song like “Lies & Alterations” — the work of what could possibly be best described as a lazy New Pornographers track, with a morning shadow of distortion lying over its face. Again, it’s fine, but it gets by on its own sense of pop-quirk too easily. Even the hella-catchy “Brought Up Too Soon” feels a bit too pastiche, as if the aforementioned Mates of State somehow hijacked a HelloGoodbye song and snuck it back to the land of four-track demos. It’s hard to criticize an album for not simply being flat-out great, but it’s very easy when said album has so much potential lying around, and it just uses enough to get by. It’s not a bad listening experience, it just could be a better one.

Yet for every moment they fall into a been-there-done-that musicality, it’s the lyrics that, time and time again, pop the band out and show a large amount of emotional maturity. Just take the opening line from the gorgeously simple closer “Her Higher Education”:

When all the other girls

Were at the soccer games we were

Swimming naked in the creek at night

And looking at the stars

There was never any question

That the thing we felt was real

Like an adolescent carnival

The drunken wonder-wheel

The song is fast-paced (it gets through this verse, the chorus, and half the second verse before it even hits the 60-second mark), but another reminder to what Nurse & Soldier is capable of. The album breezes by at a similar speed: it blazes through 14 tracks in less than 40 minutes, but remains an emotional, joyous, and ultimately fun experience. For now, it’s just a side-project, but given enough love and time, it will bloom into something so much more.

RATING 7 / 10