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Bound Stems - The Logic of Building the Body Plan

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Artist: Bound Stems

Album: The Logic of Building the Body Plan

Label: Flameshovel

Review date: Mar. 5, 2006

An older woman's voice is woven through two tracks of Bound Stems’ sweetly twisted experimental pop. She sounds stereotypically pleasant, the kind of Grandma who would take you to the video arcade without a grimace, and she's clearly talking about memories that are, to her, quite happy. The thing is that these events she recalls so fondly have a darker subcurrent to them. For instance, she talks about a genial male relative that you are friends with the minute you meet him, but who also has spent time in prison. In another, a newlywed's happy first home shrinks from two rooms to one when the husband loses a job, and there's a small discount offer if you clean the shared bathroom. The disorienting gap between her voice – fond, nostalgic, calm – and these disturbing images is, in its way, a metaphor for The Logic of Building the Body Plan. Because when you listen with half an ear, Bound Stems sounds like the sunniest kind of undemanding pop. When you give it your whole attention, surprising shades and difficulties emerge, as lo-fi melodies deconstruct themselves into non-standard time signatures and de-tuned fragments, as linear lyrics about relationships shatter endwise into arresting surreal images and longing-laden falsetto sighs.

Bound Stems is a Chicago-based band, formed around the nucleus of guitar/vocalist Bobby Gallivan and bassist Dan Radzicki in 2002 and augmented with drummer/tape manipulator Evan Sult (ex- of Harvey Danger) and singers Kate Gross and Janie Porch more recently. This is Bound Stems’ first EP, and two of its seven cuts will also appear on an upcoming full-length later this year. Though short at seven cuts and 23 minutes, it provides a glimpse of this band's distinctive mix of sweetness and complication, setting sampled intervals next to slacker melodic anthems.

The disc starts with the jittery vibrations of "Crimes and Follies," syncopated stabs of electronic keyboards dancing around the über-pop whispered lyrics, the crash of cymbals ushering in a post-punk unease. There's a shift mid-cut, as Bound Stems ventures into asymmetric post-rock of uncertain time signature, then the beat coalesces again around a relatively conventional melody. It is unsettling, destabilizing, interesting, slippery, yet despite all this, you'll find the verse playing in your head almost immediately.

"Totipotent," too, begins with cool and abstract sounds – keyboards, guitars, cymbal clash – providing an intellectual bedrock for Bobby Gallivan's impassioned whisper. His voice is a big part of Bound Stems’ appeal, fully in the continuum of sexually charged, hoarse-voiced male singers like The Constantines' Bryan Webb or Pela's Billy Swanson. Elastically full of desire, breaking with the futility of saying the things he's saying, frayed and gentle and barely functioning, Gallivan's is the kind of voice women instantly respond to, because it's the kind of voice men use when they're taking our clothes off, and it gives all of these tracks an urgency they wouldn't have with another singer.

The best two songs come late in the disc, starting with "My Kingdom for a Trundlebed," with its triumphant "God-damn it's a joke" chorus that feels instantly familiar and inevitable, but which resists any attempt to place it. It's one of the shorter songs on the CD, with fewer twists and turns than most of the cuts, but it feels like a distillation of Bound Stems’ rough-edged art, their complications boiled down to three-minute essence. Then, more multi-parted, alternating startling moments of clarity with blinding bouts of feedback fuzz, comes "Risking Life for the Coupon." The song should feel jerry-rigged, with its fragile spoke-sung bits and angelic harmonies slapped up next to shouted choruses and upright punk-centric drum beats, but it doesn't. Instead, it gains momentum, passion, direction, as it moves from part to part, picking up heft like a snowball rolling down the hill without fundamentally changing its nature.

Any pop this laid-back and fractured will draw comparisons to Pavement, but really Bound Stems has none of that band's studied irony and brain-over-emotion playfulness. This is sweet, difficult pop that goes to your heart straight off and reveals its intelligence and eccentricity only gradually.

By Jennifer Kelly

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