June 17, 2010

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Douglas Martin traded in his guitar for turntables. He wants to make Yaz records. 

About two years ago, at Seattle all-ages venue The Vera Project, in what someone who is much-less experienced writing about music would derisively refer to as as all-acoustic “bill of Jeff Mangum tribute acts” (read: vaguely weird dudes with acoustic guitars), I played one of my only shows as Fresh Cherries from Yakima. Later that evening, a local male/female duo World History played a peculiar and enthralling early-evening set to about six people including myself. Broken instruments were littered everywhere. Principal members Neil Campau and Jamie Menzel banged, clattered, thrashed, sang, screamed, and urged us to holler along. There was no stage, so the six of us sat no more than five feet across from them, too slack-jawed to eat the delicious dish prepared by one of Vera’s volunteers (vegan, obviously). It was easily the weirdest show I had ever been a part of as either a performer or spectator, which also makes it easily the most memorable. Which makes the fact that You Can’t Stop Trying, the band’s debut, will likely be written off as little more than post-Mangum pastiche all the more depressing.

The Mangum comparisons would likely start twenty-seven seconds into the album, where “In the Middle of Fall” springs from a quiet singer/songwriterly intro into a cacophonous chorus  a choir of people singing wordlessly at the top of the lungs, guitar strings falling off the frets, drums sounding like a door ready to burst off of its poorly-built hinges. The song that immediately follows, “Take Out Your Swords”, has the same loose instrumental feel (complete with jaunty melodica) while sounding like an old hymn being reinterpreted by some churchyard folk band that lives on an abandoned farm, with lyrics such as, “He’s been reborn/He’s been reborn/So praise him.” If you’re thinking, “That sounds a hell of a lot like, ‘I love you, Jesus Christ’,” you’re not paying enough attention.

World History doesn’t apply the Kitchen Sink Method to instrumentation the way that Neutral Milk Hotel and its Elephant Six brethren are known for; the band gets by on the tasteful administration of antique shop instruments. Take a song like “It’s Okay to be Alive” for instance: Starting out with Campau at his most vocally manic, he finds himself singing a ballad which displays imagery of dismembered body parts (the theme comes up again on driving penultimate track “Ricardo, You Run Free”), which eventually is tempered by Menzel’s pitch-perfect soprano and what sounds like a recorder quietly stirs in the background. During the coda, melodica and a tom being passively thumped as the band turns the folk dirge into a full-on funeral march. In terms of post-Mangum acts, World History sits neatly between the full-on Neutral Non-Fat Milk Hotel pastiche of Rock Plaza Central and the maniacal carnival-folk of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, neither as confrontationally jarring as the latter nor as suspiciously reverent as the former.

This is not to say that the record doesn’t get too weird at points: The main instrument used in “You’re a Machine” sounds like a baritone guitar being played with a hacksaw. “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk” is a jaunty, flute-enhanced pop song that begins, “He was a Mustafa, but he drank too much vodka/And now he’s in the dirt.” The band is named after a subject in high school primarily appreciated by the girls in glasses with lenses as thick as the tattered Moleskins they keep in their purses. Popularity obviously doesn’t matter too much to them. Clearly they’re not sitting in the front of the classroom because of their bad vision, but you can definitely see their charm if you spend a little time with them. That quality is what makes You Can’t Stop Trying such an engaging record upon repeat listens, if you can listen past your preconceived notions of the so-called “weirdo folk band”; not all of us were lucky enough to be at the Vera Project as World History flew off its axis.

Download:
MP3: World History – “Polaroid Thomas”
MP3: World History – “Ricardo, You Run Free”