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Don Caballero - World Class Listening Problem

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Artist: Don Caballero

Album: World Class Listening Problem

Label: Relapse

Review date: Jul. 10, 2006

I've always preferred what must be best described as the non-thinking man's Don Caballero: the band that spawned Battles rather than the one that spawned Storm & Stress; the one where deceptively simple melodic patterns diverge and interlock atop drums too busy too believe, the cheeky pseudo-metal band with a terrific percussionist and a penchant for serialism, rather than the one compelled to insist it is rock not jazz and free from solos, lest we think the tightly regimented cacophony is actually as unruly as it sounds.

Problems with sticking to the former band only: it sells short the music's nuance, its edge, its evident and unrelenting intellect. It puts octopoidal drummer Damon Che on display more as a phenom than as a rhythm section, and slights or disregards the intricacies contributed by whomever comprises the rest of the group at the time. It threatens to pigeonhole Don Caballero as math rock, to force-fit them into the kind of manageable multi-meter instrumentals practiced by Paul Newman or Shipping News. In fact Don Cab has always traded in compositions by turns messier and neater, more chaotic and less quantifiable in the fray but usually, deep down, rhythmically straightforward. The appeal of the comparatively simple, if possibly reductive, version of the band is that it's just easier, in the long run, to get.

Don Cab's general indifference to this divide is one of the reasons it's not immediately obvious that World Class Listening Problem is the band, post-five-year hiatus, staffed by entirely new personnel (Che excluded) pulled from Pittsburgh’s respectable, if unknown, Creta Bourzia. If it addresses the challenging v. charitable issue, it does so by happenstance, because both sides are represented fairly, with more or less equal enthusiasm. "I Agree... No!... I Disagree" and "Savage Composition" work themselves up into knotty, puzzling snarls; "Railroad Cancellation" and to a lesser extent "Palm Trees in the Fecking Bahamas" are linear, surprisingly unostentatious, and actually quite pretty.

The album's other songs tend toward a kind of coalescence, in their own crunchy and angular way. "Mmmmm Acting, I Love Me Some Good Acting" twiddles and stomps into something more or less memorizable after a few plays; same with the title track. As before, greater attention is paid throughout to texture and phase than to melody, but the challenges here are generally fair, the experiments usually fruitful, and the 4/4-sized concessions ample enough to keep people like me on board, rather than driving us back to the Cancer Conspiracy or Ghosts and Vodka or something comparably non-threatening. It's not that Che is the only one doing complicated things, but that he's allowed, if not intended, to be the focal point of the songs, which makes for a listen that gives about as much as it takes.

So whereas taking a side between algebraic rigor and virtuosic arena rock would probably have to alienate someone, World Class Listening Problem defers the issue by distilling it. If past Don Cab albums have taken up proximate influences like Slint (For Respect) or Tortoise (American Don), this one takes Don Caballero as its blueprint – not its point of departure, but the object of its curiosity – and works casually to reconcile the density of Don Caballero 2 with the simplicity of Singles Breaking Up. Its success is realistically limited, but it may be as close to harmony as a band known for its widespread embrace of challenge and dissonance will come, in as democratic a way as the polarized Don Cab camps might have possibly hoped.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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