Meet the album-format version of Voxtrot's music: Polaroids made grand for the arena stage.
Each of Voxtrot's first two singles -- 7"s, now out-of-print -- gave the impression, in 2004, that this brand-new band from Austin, Texas was already capable of absolute greatness. It wasn't just the A-sides: smart, punchy, vaguely Smiths-ish anthems, both later featured on the eponymous CD EP that really lit the spark about the band. It was how they were each paired with a long, lingering ballad that built with feeling as it went, the vocals achieving midnight-sky transcendence even when the lyrics were slyly bitter. It was hard to imagine how a band could come out of nowhere with four songs that sounded this precisely formed, and classically so, filled with melodies and lyrics to ponder and swoon over. It made you wonder if they had their hands on a secret reservoir of new classics. It made some of us immediately consider them our new favorite band.
As they slowly let their songs out over the next couple years -- in the form of three EPs and one compilation track -- the buzz about Voxtrot only grew, while their music gently changed from release to release, mutating into what's to be heard on their self-titled first album. On each subsequent EP they toughened up their sensitive-pop, building muscles of electric guitar onto the rock numbers and dramatic waves of strings onto the ballads. Though Voxtrot in 2007 plays bigger, fuller music, with more layers and pieces, than three years ago, the progression hasn't been continual addition so much as refinement, as if they tried to strip their music down to an essence, and then took that and built into something that'd be clearly identified as "the Voxtrot sound". One dominant sound, one with a rock 'n' roll oomph and grand presence that would translate well live, or even on the radio.
The upshot of this is that a band which had been putting out small releases that each sounded fresh now has an album with one dominant style. The blog-writers and next-hot-band-spotters shouldn't let themselves write this album off as a disappointment, though, just because it lacks the quick pleasure that a quick-and-hot single or EP provides. For if Voxtrot seems less magical the first time through, it grows in stature with each listen, as an album should. There's moments when it sounds more ordinary than I want it to, but that feeling never lasts long. What feels like a dull hook is quickly replaced by an exciting one; a song that starts off sounding too much like the one before changes quickly. Every song I try to write off has at least a few redeeming surprises within.
Many of the songs on Voxtrot have their own subtle interior progression; they change before your ears. Album-opener "Introduction" first seems like what its title makes you expect: a gently building set-up for the next song's burst of energy. And it is. But it's also a suite in and of itself, not just building -- with guitars, bass, drums and a string quartet -- but also reaching a joyous plateau, one that echoes in some ways the even more hectic release of the album's final song, "Blood Red Blood". That song has a strain of free-jazz running in the background, one that begins like ska accents. It's an unexpected touch that's woven smoothly into the song's rises and falls, one of many such touches throughout the album. Many are courtesy of Tosca String Quartet, who appear on seven of the album's tracks and fit in so well that they now seem like an extension of the band itself. There's other times when piano switches in for guitar, like on the remarkable "Steven", which also has some quick harmony vocals that are perfect enough to imagine that the song had another life as a Beach Boys-style beach sing-along. And there's moments throughout where a song seems to be taking you one direction and then changes course.
The mid-album pair "Firecracker" and "Brother in Conflict" is partly the album's most frustrating songs, because they seem the most ordinary. But each is fascinating, too. "Firecracker" has a rev-up-the-crowd chorus that rubs me the wrong way, sounding like it's leading towards some type of stadium/sporting event communal pump-fist-along... but only for a second. Even within that chorus itself the song mutates into something prettier and subtler; lead singer (and band songwriter) Ramesh Srivastava sings the verses with an undeniable glee; and the song keeps hammering forward and picking up joy with each step. "Brother in Conflict" also has a chorus that seems too simple for the band's talents, but the verses -- with those strings soaring behind -- go down smoothly, especially with the fun "My Sharona"-like groove. And near the end the melody builds into another, unexpected hook before ending. And that's how it is with Voxtrot -- disappointments melt into moments of illumination... exhilaration, even.
And then there's songs that feel just right from start to finish, like polished-up versions of the songs Voxtrot first caught our attention with. "Kid Gloves" offers gloriously big arena rock; what could be more fun than a typically melancholic singer cheekily singing "cheer me up / cheer me up / I'm a miserable fuck" over pounding guitars? And that hook isn't even the main chorus, itself a killer for its melody. "Ghost" begins contemplatively, but with enough of a kick that you can tell it's going to build towards some grand release; it doesn't disappoint. "Real Live Version" is a gorgeous maturation of those slow-burning, pristine ballads on the B-sides (a confident, reinvented "Dirty Version"). "Every Day" at first seems unremarkable, but it gains strength as it becomes a striking, sweet love song. It seems like the completion of the song before it, "The Future, Part 1", which touches on love's complexities in whirlwind style, at mid-tempo.
One memorable line from that song, "We scratch to the bottom of memory," resonates with both the general self-analytical approach of Srivastava's lyrics and the looking-back-and-making sense tone of Voxtrot as a whole. It seems no mistake that the album art is a collage of Polaroids, or that the band's cover art always involves snapshots of people. Voxtrot's songs are filled with "we"s and "you"s and "I"s; they so often resemble letters, sent or unsent. And while it'd be tempting to brand their songs as generational commentary -- to take lyrics like "Introduction"'s line, "We made our rules and then we broke them first" and turn it into a social statement -- it'd be such a mistake. Voxtrot's songs have universal qualities in the way that detail-driven, artfully written creations about people's personal lives often do. The lyrics hit home, along with the musical notes. Interpersonal drama -- and post-drama analysis -- is central to these songs, as it is to life. In our heads we all go back over things that happened years ago, trying to make sense of them, to figure out what we did wrong or how things could have been different. Most of us don't do it within brilliantly constructed pop songs, however. We just listen, spellbound.