Snowglobe: Our Land Brains

Patrick Schabe


Our Land Brains

Label: Bardot
US Release Date: 2002-05-28

If there's a difference between being musically obtuse and being psychedelic, it's to be found in bands like Snowglobe. Rather than being quirky and experimental for the sake of sounding druggy and far-out, bands like Snowglobe produce sonic landscapes that defy convention for the sake of pure creativity. For many bands, this isn't always successful, but thankfully Snowglobe scores more hits than misses.

Falling somewhere along the lines of the Flaming Lips and Elephant 6 bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, with traces of They Might Be Giants and a whole host of bands past and present, Snowglobe's music defies the simplicity of pop, the seriousness of rock, and the whimsy of novelty acts, and it does so by combining all three. Heavy on instrumentation, the songs on Our Land Brains are a heady swirl of guitar rock supplemented with horns and organs, pianos and strings, and applied in a mish-mash technique that would make many a jam-band jealous. But somehow Snowglobe manages to break out of the psychedelic folk mode, even while the sunshine lyrics of these tracks might suggest such a tendency. This music is seriously goofy, and goofily serious, and always a bit surreal. And fairly hard to categorize.

One of the most obvious reasons for this, on first listen, is the fact that Snowglobe's songs refuse to sit still. While they are all built on solid melodies, these melodies seem to shift and slide into one another without regard to song structure and track order. A better way to describe it might be that these songs seem to operate on the same principles as the cut-up technique of William Burroughs. A melody will begin, and build, and then, often without a break or pause, another melody will spring forth and propel the song in a new direction. This, combined with Snowglobe's propensity for tacked-on intros and outros, contributes to a pleasant, seamless quality to the album. Of the sixteen tracks on this album, song lengths range from the four-second joke/conceit of the album-closer, "Thriller", to the nearly seven-minute-long "Big City Lights", with the full range between well covered. The result of all this is that the listener easily loses track of where songs begin and end, and instead simply enjoys rolling along on the changing waves of these conjoined melodies. In spite of being a sometimes strange and jarring listening experience, it also makes for a highly engaging album.

Because of this, it's hard to really speak of songs that stand out, but with the clip-and-paste feel of many of these pieces, the longer tracks with fully developed lyrics draw a lot of attention to themselves. It's the twin epics of "Big City Lights" and "The Song That Frustrates Us" that stand as the most impressive of the long-format tracks. Starting out as a wistful acoustic guitar and piano track, a steel guitar and horns giving it a slight country tint, "Big City Lights" shifts two minutes in as the tempo steps up and the song evolves into dirge-like lament, then breaks into a carnivalesque play of organs and trumpets, and finally resolves in sweet harmonies that hint at Brian Wilson pop aesthetics. "The Song That Frustrates Us" starts off as thin vocals over a sparse acoustic guitar and quickly builds to a rising swirl of organs, layered harmonies, and horns, coalescing around a large choral of background singers and a rock beat. Between these two tracks, you get a good sense of the complexity that Snowglobe brings to their sweeping vision of music.

But even the shorter tracks exhibit this variety. The piano- and horn-augmented, guitar rock of "Dreamworks" could easily work its way onto college radio as a solid single, replete as it is with anthemic vocals and soaring guitar solos. The slow, ambling pace of "Adrenaline Mother" has a decided folk flair, but breaks into a shimmering guitar line that is undercut with warped and warbled notes. "Smiles and Frowns" finds Snowglobe sounding their most like They Might Be Giants, from the cartoon-like characters in the song to the vocals sounding eerily like John Linnell, but the song resolves in a lilting outro that transforms the track from an energetic pop farce into something of contemplative beauty. The airy sensation of "Experiments" breaks down into warped guitar riffs, a harpsichord-like keyboard flourish, and even a breakbeat scratch and mix, then suddenly rises back up on a multi-vocal chorus of harmonies. These songs simply will not sit still.

In some respects, you'd be first inclined to think that this is music for people noodling around with instruments and studio time. The cut-up technique makes it hard to approach these tracks as individual compositions and they become something more akin to collage. But whether the results of this method arrive through meticulous precision or loose freehand play, Snowglobe manages to keep it interesting. The ear is consistently challenged to keep pace with the shifts in the music, never growing bored by the lull of repetition. It's frustratingly difficult to describe in words. Each track seems to demand full dissection, but even if the pieces could be precisely described, the overall effect cannot be sufficiently conveyed.

So let's leave it at this: Snowglobe has issued a debut album that is both creative and exciting, promising future experimentation into surreal textures of rock and pop, and one that immediately grabs the listener's attention and doesn't let go. Is it psychedelic? Yes, in a way. Is it obtuse? Most definitely. Is it worth your time? Absolutely. If Snowglobe succeeds in their quest to bring both fun and imagination back into the world of indie pop and rock, it will be through continuing in the formula-defying tradition that they've established with Our Land Brains.


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