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+/- - Holding Patterns / You Are Here

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Artist: +/-

Album: Holding Patterns / You Are Here

Label: Teen Beat

Review date: Feb. 10, 2004


OK let’s couch a bit. Plus/Minus’ new LP has production values well beyond the charming, sometimes slight, lab/playground living room-pop feel of their Self-Titled Long Playing Debut. It has enough murky brooding mood to fill a Brian DePalma movie, if not nearly enough for David Cronenberg. It has a couple of moments of artful and sweet poppetry. This all must be why it’s garnered great reviews out yon in criticland. But it also leaves a dull ring in my ears and somewhat sour film in my mouth, and I’ll probably never put it on again after this review is done.

We all need to have our little pets, our band-crushes, players that we silently root toward greatness. When they turn sour or stumble, fumble or flunk, the gut clutches for them. In 2003 I had an unusually large bout of disappointments (also including new albums from Appleseed Cast and Pretty Girls Make Graves) and so maybe I’m just real sensitive and all right now. It felt like 2003 had disappointment enough to balance against the joy found in half of my top ten.

Real disappointment and not resentment. Not even premature nostalgia for +/-’s “original sound.” The thing that just flattens this new LP is the band’s fantastic other 2003 release, the Holding Patterns EP. In spite of (And perhaps because of?) its brevity, the five-song offering ranks right up with the best of 2003’s pop and rock. Even the title seemed to acknowledge: +/- was set to arrive. With a full-length coming so close behind, it seemed like wherever they stepped off would be someplace starry.

The EP opens with “I’ve Been Lost,” introducing the delicate tick/thock/pluck that earned their debut a place in the freshman class of lap-pop or what have you. But +/- never quite fit in that crate, as the band’s central songwriting force, James Baluyut, comes fully developed from the indie rock mainland mark, Versus. The electronic accoutrements were more like toys to be used for the stretching and flexing of his craft, rather than as instruments of force. The soft restrained acoustics are soon ripped away to reveal a furious hot underflow, and replaced just as suddenly; the soft/loud trick is no spring chicken trick, but it works immeasurably better than when +/- used it on their debut. Most importantly, the jarring bursts of guitar fury cannot help but fail to mask the fact that this is an iron-sided tightly-coiled strutter of a song, building and releasing and building again until the vocal rejoins over escalating pressure: “Try to understand / I’ve been lost / not the only one/ ready to come down.” The pressure breaks, ooh’s sympathize and jangles reassure, and the song fades out like a changed person.

In four more tracks, the EP spans an acrobatic and muscular roundhouse (“Trapped Under Ice Flows”), a wispy downy full-moon croon (“Far Into the Fields”), a springy pop beauty with a doodlydong advanced-calculus proof of a riff that sounds like it might have beat Capitol K to his next album (“You’ve Just Got it All”), and a gently-lapping ballad that swells with a triumphant tide (“Making the Horse Drink”). Can this band really pull off a soaring grandiose motion like “Making the Horse Drink”? Just. The EP has focus and assurance where their debut had promise and pluck. And it’s the songs, stupid, not the specially-designed computer programs.

Ho-kay. You Are Here opens with “Ventriloquist”, a “Tomorrow Never Knows” with low subterranean club beat and threatening guitar gait. Strains of guitar peek out, and the beat thumps and skitters, the guitar more aggressive than before and the beat closer to a pulse than a pop song. Then the track spends itself out, getting swarmed by noise and tape slurs – a haughty and creaky front gate to the album.

But instead of a mere setpiece, “Ventriloquist” offers a model for a good half of You Are Here’s tracks: spidery beats and cavernous atmospherics swirl around with dark colors. Almost as evident is the shift in voice: instead of the pithy lovey tropes of the debut, and the struggle against aimlessness and depression that is so emotional and expressive on Holding Patterns, You Are Here offers snatches of first-person narratives that are at turns desolate (“ Scarecrow standing in the field / no one within miles to see / distance grows / fire goes cold”) or menacing (“I’ve got ways to make you pay”), like a movie with a bad guy that doesn’t take much pleasure in being bad.

On “She’s Got Your Eyes” the tack is successful, as a groping Tortoise-like bassline grounds the song in repetition as guitar squalls and the shuffleburst drumming build the momentum. The lyrics are unsubtle threats from an abandoned lover, “I’ll find out / where you live / and surprise / your wife and kids”; that sound empty and straight-to-video, but when the bassline shifts into a forceful guitar eruption, the effect is awesome. “Cutting Out” alternates between Sea and Cake pulses of hazy light and clangy sword and gun assaults, flipping at first with electric sparks and then with a smooth click . Baluyut spends all of the second track “Surprise!” promising in subdued sing-speak: “Oh you’ve got a surprise waiting for you.”

But by the end, all we get is soupy electro fruitylooping. Any expectations carried over from Holding Patterns make this nonplussing. I suppose the sudden departure of songcraft is a surprise, but it is neither scary nor delightful. Even when the moodlighting is effective, it lacks endearment and pleasure; it lacks the eloquent precision that had previously been so effective. This sounds more like any self-serious scene-stealing band that have more knobs than talent.

Look to the one song that carries over from the EP, “Trapped Under Ice Flows.” It’s a momentous thrillride on Holding Patterns, a jangledriver that shifts into high power-chords, maxes out on a tight-strung two-note guitar solo borrowed from the Buzzcocks, skids into a spacious ambience before wheeling back up to careen around like doing donuts on an astral plane. On You Are Here, the “Redux” in the title says all too much: an inexplicable cut that merely reduces the horsepower and puts a lid on, until the song is catchy but unremarkable. Tinny. It’s doubly shameful, too, because what’s lost would have effectively harnessed and released the restrained nervy energy of the surrounding tracks.

But while this is just a missed opportunity, there’s also a foul: right in the middle of all the caution and clipped energy, “Megalomaniac” comes bursting out. It does sound more familiar than the rest of the album; in fact, if you are feeling unkind, as I am at this point in the album, you’d say it’s just a retread of “Making the Horse Drink.” Only +/- can’t quite pull it off this time, and by overshooting and falling short it comes out sounding more like the pierced-and-dyed-but-sensitive white manchild who, every once in a while, stops rapping the rock and sings with their tattooed arms wide open. It is what it is on an album that frankly ain’t.

Holding Patterns announced that they’d already earned the right to such grand gestures, so triumphantly and so early on that it was good as foregone that this group had the math done tight; You Are Here is like a renunciation, and if they haven’t taken a step backwards it’s like they looked left, looked right, and stayed stubbornly still.

By Greg Bloom

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