A confusing but no less exciting debut from a band of indie-rock chameleons. If only it didn't blend in so well.
Simply put, Movie Monster might have been the biggest indie rock debut of the summer. If only it were easier to figure out who Sound Team want to be.
What we do know about the Austin, Texas, sextet is that they come with enough advance hype that it's hard not to at least pay attention. The band has slowly crafted a sound and a dedicated following, based on increasingly complex live shows and four self-produced EPs, the last of which, 2005's Work, captivated some big league press. Sound Team has also done a solid job of capturing the hearts of enough of the bloggerati that their music has featured heavily on mp3 sites, and was bolstered by touring with heavyweights like the Arcade Fire and the Walkmen. All of which led to no less than Capitol Records offering Sound Team its first contract.
But nothing in that description really prepares you for the disjointed, hook-heavy and style-conscious trip that is this album. Sure, the influences of bands like the Arcade Fire are certainly felt -- if anything, Sound Team is multi-textured and willing to employ any number of different instruments to craft its songs. And yes, the whole indie-rock vibe permeates the music, making it not so much a left-field stand-out as a close cousin of its well-known peers. But what isn't consistent is the approach that any one song takes. Composed of equal parts Vancouver indie, krautrock, techno-dance, psychedelia, and adult contemporary pop, with a liberal dose of folk songwriter elements, Sound Team doesn't so much synthesize a style out of its influences as bend the various styles of its influences to its respective songs.
The Movie Monster experience starts off straightforward enough with "Get Out", thrumming in on a fuzzy bass/synth pairing and quickly climbing into some enthusiastic, sing-along vocal harmonies, sounding not unlike the New Pornographers, who might be the closest thing Sound Team has to a direct relative. But then it drops out after 73 seconds, a tape warp blending the song into "Born to Please", easily the most "indie rock" of the album's offerings, and charmingly familiar. The same rough-hewn fuzz of "Get Out" is mirrored here, but now picked up by the guitars, with the keys and organs pushed to fill out an atmospheric backdrop. The song's real anchor is the yearning voice of Matt Oliver, who leads the track with an emphatic emotion that manages to nestle into the dramatic without seeming cheesy. "Born to Please" is also the first indicator of what makes Sound Team's formula (if there is one) so successful: the song is full of hooks and audible treasures, but nothing quite controls your attention. The melodies aren't amazingly complex, but they're catchy as hell, and after a mere couple of listens, you're already anticipating the bits you know are coming, the songs having worked their way into memory that easily.
The New Pornographers power pop comparison continues with "No More Birthdays", dominated this time around by a Dan Bejar-like organ accompaniment, but filtered through the same kind of rootsy underpinning that surrounds Apollo Sunshine. So far, no great surprises, right? But as soon as the last cymbal crashes on "No More Birthdays", the disc proceeds to the title track, and "Movie Monster" drops into bass-heavy, murky territory that's the white-boy version of Can filtered through TV on the Radio, most evident in the bridge of the song when Oliver drops his voice to a warped low end that definitely owes a stylistic debt to Tunde Adebimpe. Then, as if to prove that "Movie Monster" isn't a momentary deviation, we get the techno-infused kraturock of "TV Torso", which marries Kraftwerk to late '80s EBM dance in the vein of Bigod 20, but given a post-punk edge with a brutal and exceptionally effective Jah Wobble bass line provided by band co-founder Bill Baird. Suddenly, in the space of two songs, we're in completely different territory.
At that point, the doors to Big Orange, the barn/studio the band calls its recording home, are hanging by the hinges. "Back in Town" slams back into Apollo Sunshine power-pop bliss, filled with beautiful vintage keyboard work from Michael Baird. But Movie Monster isn't content to rest in familiar territory for long. "Your Eyes Are Liars" is the perfect antidote to the current crop of 1980s retro enthusiast bands -- instead of clipped and nervous post-punk, this is the steady alternative rock that frequently gets overlooked in the nostalgia craze, the kind of shimmering guitar and simple bass work that was the hallmark of bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, the Alarm, and especially the Church.
From there, "Afterglow Years" treats us to a slightly rougher-edged version of U2, complete with Bono-fied emoting in Oliver's vocals and Edge-imitating guitar, though admittedly the American indie version winds up sounding a bit like early '90s college rock in the vein of School of Fish. "Shattered Glass" gives us more post-punk atmospherics, this time layered over some decidedly kraut/techno synth work, but that slides easily into the shoegaze wispiness of the effects-drenched "You've Never Lived a Day". Finally, to close things off, Sound Team leave us with the anthemic yet mysterious "Handfull of Billions", which has a gorgeously punchy rhythm and rolling percussion and just feels like a closing track, the kind of full-throated, upbeat song that injects so much pop catchiness into an album's close that you want nothing more than to hit play again once it's all over.
Normally, I try to avoid writing about every song on an album, but Movie Monster fairly demands it. There's no way to approach these songs as a seamless whole, and therein lies the only real fault with Sound Team's approach. As much as we reviewers and critics like to complain about a lack of variety and a band's songs all sounding the same, when confronted with the opposite, it's hard to really know how to handle the material.
Ultimately, Movie Monster has the effect of convincing you that you just listened to 45 minutes of alternative rock radio with an '80s and '90s bent -- on a station where variety and eclectic playlists rule the day, and pop means as much as rock. In that sense, Movie Monster is an album you easily get lost in, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable listen. But it also means that the disc has little central identity. Although Matt Oliver's voice is fairly consistent throughout, and the secret elements of Bill Baird's songwriting and Michael Baird's collection of keyboard tones are of a piece, there's so much variation that it's hard to end the album and say, "I know what a Sound Team song sounds like", which, in spite of their virtuosity, you never really get the sense of with the Arcade Fire or the New Pornographers.
It's a small quibble, in some ways, as Movie Monster remains a fun, energizing, and completely memorable experience... track by track, at least. I've spun it dozens of times, and the songs continue to have the same effect on me, and I still regard it as one of the best full-length debuts I've heard this year. But without a central identity, the overly-generic name Sound Team seems like too apt a descrption.
That said, you should get on board the hype train and decide for yourself. If you hear one song you're not impressed with, skip to the next track. Or the next. It's virtually certain you'll find something at the very least effectively familiar. And in the end, that makes Movie Monster a winner.
Sound Team - Your Eyes Are Liars