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90 Day Men - Too Late or Too Dead + 2

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Artist: 90 Day Men

Album: Too Late or Too Dead + 2

Label: Southern

Review date: Oct. 23, 2003

An intrinsic hurdle to the word-of-mouth success of the 90 Day Men is that no one knows quite how to describe them. Which is not to say that they do not sound like anyone; indeed, they sound a little bit like everyone. Their drawn-out song structures lead some to call them a post-rock band (as does their home base of Chicago). The measured aggression of their songs leads some to claim a punk influence, however attenuated. Their meandering, keyboard driven verses lead some to call them a prog band. That last description raises red flags for people like me, but it is probably the most accurate. One could compare them to almost anybody - from Rodan, to the Birthday Party, to Eno - and be at least a little bit right. But as intriguing as these descriptions might sound, they fail to indicate whether it’s worth listening to the 90 Day Men. Perhaps assertion will have to take the place of reasoned comparison. It is; it really is.

The 90 Day Men’s first two albums - [it (is) it] critical band and To Everybody were unclassifiable, experimental attempts to find a voice. Their early work betrayed a fascination with new wave and math rock; their instrumental foundation was a bed of jagged riffs and twitchy percussion, supporting Brian Case’s raspy, contemptuous lyrics. The introduction of keyboard player Andy Lansangan pulled everything together; as his piano work began taking the lead, songs that had sounded overly long and art-glutted began to sound expansive and visionary. To Everybody was a prog rock album, there can be no doubt about it – it had six songs, five of which were nearly six minutes long or longer – but unlike most prog rock albums, where band members are apparently awarded solos by a lottery system and producers use their mixing board like a blunt instrument, the 90 Day Men offered sharp melodies and musical discipline. While it was mostly a critic’s album, To Everybody was so universally adored that even the most cynical fan had to admit that the critics – and by extension, of course, the 90 Day Men – were on to something.

The Too Late or Too Dead EP offers a first glimpse of what the 90 Day Men have done with their third album, Panda Park. “Too Late or Too Dead”, the despairing title track (which will also appear on the album), opens with the piano and drums trading off the tempo before a stabbing guitar riff appears and disappears, followed by another, and then Case growls the song’s opening line: “And I am so tired now.” The spooky multi-tracked vocals and menacing atmosphere could be overwhelming, but Lansangan plinks out an almost new age piano melody that squelches the initial spirit of resignation. The final line even attests to a feeling of purpose: “where do we go from here?”

From the tightly wound “Too Late or Too Dead”, the EP moves onto “Harlequin’s Chassis”, a song whose revolving guitar line sounds like an extension of “Too Late or Too Dead”. But the tension of that song goes away quickly as Lansangan and Robert Lowe begin their crooning, wordless vocal harmonizing. “Too Late or Too Dead” winds the listener up, but “Harlequin’s Chassis” is more about release – the drum crescendo at the end is about as close as the 90 Day Men will come to rocking out.

The final track, “Eyes in the Road”, is the experimental one. Synthesizer beats and echo-chamber drumming are accompanied by a mysterious, drifting studio effect. While the song is not half-bad it sounds hopelessly out of place. This is, perhaps, the next direction for the 90 Day Men, but the electronic-influenced instrumental rock will have to wait awhile. However you want to label what they are doing right now, they are doing it very well.

By Tom Zimpleman

Other Reviews of 90 Day Men

To Everybody

Panda Park

Read More

View all articles by Tom Zimpleman

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