This is, first and foremost, an exquisitely produced album. After a brief hiatus in 2003, the Race, led by songwriter Craig Klein, approached leftfield electronic mavericks Telefon Tel Aviv to produce the songs which would eventually become If You Can.
Every snare pops in the most precise manner possible, and every pluck of a guitar string is recorded in perfect fidelity. As with their own material, such as this year's breakout Map of What Is Effortless, Telefon Tel Aviv's production amazingly accentuates the exquisite beauty in every individual element without losing sight of the overall mix.
This is an album made for headphones. On a tinny car stereo or a miniature boombox it sounds positively boring, with mewling vocals over uninterestingly dull indie-rock drones. If You Can is an album crafted entirely around the concept of subtle intricacy, and it rewards a concentrated listening.
The first track -- also the title track -- begins with a doggedly off-tempo kick drum and a ringing guitar playing very softly in the background. The problem here, as with much of the album, is the vocals: I realize there are any number of indie bands with similar singers, but the fact that Chris Klein sings the majority of these passages in what sounds like a methadone-induced stupor seriously affects my enjoyment of the music. The track builds, adding piano and guitar elements as the drumming becomes increasingly more involved. Finally, about three and a half minutes into the track, after the vocals fall away and the multiple elements climb together in a sort of sonic victory lap, the song reaches climax.
This is a very short album, almost an EP. Four out of the nine tracks are less than three minutes long, and none are longer than five. "Safe and Sound" collapses the bombast of an eight-minute Modest Mouse track into the space of two and a half minutes. The album's shortest track at just over two minutes, "Rose" is the kind of energetic noise rocker that Sonic Youth would play if Sonic Youth were encased in molten lead. I don't know if that's a compliment or not.
"Can Get Home" features the kind of swaying melodic movement that Radiohead favored around the time of The Bends, albeit with a bit less momentum. The use of multiple guitar lines playing similarly repetitive chords creates an interestingly warm effect. Unlike many of the tracks on If You Can, this one doesn't really build to a cathartic climax so much as it follows a more typical verse-chorus structure, with the final refrain of the chorus, "I can't rest another minute / Another moment in silence", fading into the inevitable silence.
"Ark Again" showcases Klein's limited lyrical ability. Perhaps he's trying to be intense, but he merely comes off as torpid, especially as he chants "Go ahead / Go / Row, row, row". Again, there's some nice string playing here, but unless you can manage to put the lyrics out of your head, you'll have a hard time taking it seriously.
"Sinking Feeling" is perhaps the album's best track. Klein's vocals seem less limited, maybe because they're buried further back in the mix. This track really showcases Kevin Duneman's slyly confident drumming. "The Hours Eat the Flowers" initially sounds like the latest Neptunes dub plate being played at 33 RPM, but it's not, really -- or at least I don't think it is. Again, the track frustrates as much as it fulfills, as it builds and builds to only a half-hearted climax before stuttering to a languid end.
"Seed" is almost a parody of itself, with Klein's voice intoning "No flowers grow / No birds sing" over a somnolent drumbeat. The song fades out over a gentle lullaby of a keyboard melody, but unfortunately the track seems less like a good idea than a hotboxed garage band trying to cover Mazzy Star.
But the group recovers for the last track on the album, "Out Like a Lamb", which, the vocals aside, is a real gem. Again, the sense of strong melodic repetition comes to the fore and the understated rhythm section lays down an appetizing bedrock. I think the Race would probably make better architects than musicians, because again, they seem more comfortable building songs than writing them, creating sonic structures that ebb and flow and expand until they finally dissipate.
I am of two minds about this album (as you've probably guessed if you've made it this far). One the one hand, as a band they've got a real strong sound -- undoubtedly buoyed considerably by Telefon Tel Aviv's production. On the other, there's that damn voice, which sounds like it would have a better time reading the phone book than intoning these dour, po-faced lyrics. I would suggest they either drop the singing entirely or at least give Klein a cup of cappuccino, because as good as the group is now and might one day be, they're not going anywhere with that idiotic voice.