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Mystic Chords of Memory - Mystic Chords of Memory

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Artist: Mystic Chords of Memory

Album: Mystic Chords of Memory

Label: Rough Trade / World's Fair

Review date: Sep. 27, 2004

A pretty great name for a band. The phrase “the mystic chords of memory” comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861, and was taken from a point in the speech in which Lincoln discussed the ties between the states – “from every battlefield and patriot grave” – that would preserve the union. As employed by Mystic Chords of Memory, a group composed of ex-Beachwood Sparks frontman Christopher Gunst and Jen Cohen from the Aislers Set, the phrase loses its heavy connotations. The mystic chords of memory referred herein draw us back to glossy memories of the great outdoors, scored to a lilting soundtrack of soft rock.

This business about the great outdoors isn’t just some knee-jerk interpretation of the atmosphere of the songs. No, it’s there in the cover art, in the song titles (e.g., “Berry Creek Falls”), even in the tiny drawings next to the track listing on the back cover (check out the rendering a desert island beside “Mango and Arky”). Mystic Chords of Memory doesn’t so much conjure that atmosphere, however, as it conjures other bands who have also written about the same thing. Roderick Nash once wrote about a young Henry David Thoreau, convinced that he could spend his life in the wild, spending a single miserable night shivering on a Maine mountaintop. That was the end of Thoreau’s attempts to live entirely off of nature, and the beginning of his search for a more temperate mediating point between the city and the wilderness. On Mystic Chords of Memory we've got a mediating point between soft guitar chords and keyboard lines that are all of the sunshine and none of the exposure.

However you want to frame it – summers in national park lodges, drives to Big Bear, hikes up Mt. Washington - Mystic Chords of Memory doesn’t recall those reference points so much as a highly stylized version of that, going so far as to mix strings and guitar with field recordings. Which means, alas, that the music fails to be much more than a bland sort of atmospheric folk rock. Gunst’s vocals are the culprit there: they seldom rise above a whisper, depend upon simplistic timing, and follow a uniform tempo that rarely matches the timing of the song. Gunst and Cohen also probably overdo it with the vocal harmonies; with both parties sounding too tentative to take the lead, the boy-girl counterpoint turns into so much aural wallpaper.

The real shame is that Gunst and Cohen are essentially fighting gravity: most of the songs have real heft to them, and only an unnecessary artfulness makes them seem wraithlike and insubstantial. Take away the harmonizing and New Age arpeggios, and leave only the moments in between – austere moments on keyboards and strings, or isolated seconds of noise. Given how hard they're working to make it all sound effortless, those moments are a welcome respite.

By Tom Zimpleman

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