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Alexander McGregor - Part One: Aguirre Returns

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Artist: Alexander McGregor

Album: Part One: Aguirre Returns

Label: Eskimo Laboratories

Review date: Jan. 26, 2004

Connecting your work with Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Werner Herzog’s tale of a megalomaniac Spanish nobleman’s journey through Latin America, is a perilous move. The audacity of Aguirre, with his declarations of “rebellion unto death” and threats to dethrone the king of Spain, demonstrates a handicapping unfamiliarity with reality. Entitling his first record, Part One: Aguirre Returns, Alexander McGregor saddles himself with that strange legacy of breakdown and dysfunction.

McGregor reinforces this impression by striking a familiar artistic pose of disconnection from contemporary life and a certain distaste for actuality. The gently poppy folk of Part One: Aguirre Returns makes it seem an unlikely vehicle for social commentary. With a stated ambition to make music that his grandmother would enjoy, and a whimsical approach to fashion that tends towards the outmoded, one would expect this EP to be a tedious exercise in nostalgia. While the ancient wheezing of an accordion on “Exit,” a 40-second interlude between songs, is exactly calibrated to conjure images of hurdy gurdy players meandering through cobblestone town squares, most of the brief record is resolutely anti-escapist. McGregor dabbles in the vocabulary of the past to craft a personal response to the present.

The hiss of the lo-fi home recording successfully serves McGregor’s aims of creating music reminiscent of old vaudeville. It gives the record a strangely distant appeal, as if it were an artifact recovered from long ago. It is under the guise of dreamily catchy folk and psychedelic music that the record works its way under the listener’s skin. The slightness of the music, performed on children’s instruments – a ’50s era Stella guitar, toy pianos and organs and a pocket trumpet, as well as its catchiness masks the possibility of a political or social significance. However, buried amongst his toys, McGregor seems unwilling to abandon politics, exploiting that innocent appearance for a non-polemical anti-war statement.

Songs like “White Caribou” capture McGregor at his best. The guitar playing builds slowly in complexity from the most basic of chords to an increasingly chaotic arrangement, while McGregor’s vocals build in increasing intensity as an anti-war protest. The record ends with the strongest song, “Making Movies,” a skillful integration of McGregor’s guitar, found sounds, and a plaintive flute. The longest song, it’s the only one that’s really given enough time to unwind for the listener, from the slow burn of the beginning to an increasingly emotional peak.

It’s unfortunate that most of the other songs aren’t given an equal chance to develop. Their brevity prevents them from becoming especially memorable and the EP itself feels slight, even for an EP. Too much time is given over to ‘songs’ like “Calibrate,” the opener, which sounds like nothing more than someone running through a scale for half a minute. McGregor needs more room than the three-minute pop song allows on Part One: Aguirre Returns to in order to be effective. In future work, perhaps McGregor will expand his parameters – Part One: Aguirre Returns piques the listener’s interest without fully satisfying it.

By Emily Wanderer

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