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Rings - Black Habit

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Artist: Rings

Album: Black Habit

Label: Paw Tracks

Review date: Feb. 20, 2008

Assume that music attached to familiar and traditional structures exceeds in large part through performance and personality, while, say, abstract electro-acoustic composition exceeds through the strength of intellectually vetted concepts. The thrill in the former is in the marriage between personality and song, while the latter’s excitement is defined by the vetting process itself. Rings muddy these waters, for while Black Habit is connected to and driven by the personality of the band, the songs, as they appear on the album, are simply not there. Not ‘not there’ in the way that someone like Mattin operates (his work constitutes a unique twist of the above – personality exceeding through the destruction of song), but ‘not there’ in the way that a donut is missing its center. The performances are skeletons that point to the space between the bones. There’s a deliberate non-playing of superfluously melodic interlocked guitar and piano. Harmonies are purposely executed in discordance. Bass or drums might anchor these songs, but the drums are sparse and tribal, the bass non-existent. This would seem like sabotage if it weren’t precisely the point.

The band’s previous incarnation, First Nation, were able to get away with this by aiming a bit lower. If that band were reminiscent of a Shaggier Liliput, Rings is Liliput trying to be the unholy combination of Virgin Prunes and the Cocteau Twins. It’s an absurd concept that they manage to hit square on the head. Even they struggle to take it seriously, breaking into laughter during the vocal round that concludes “Is He Handsome.” Moreover, the lyrics throughout are disarmingly clear and emotional. Joanna Newsom’s lyrical flights of fancy unquestionably fit into a valid emotional framework; if Rings were to step out on that ledge, it’d make it much easier to either dismiss them or to appreciate them as a put-on, as girls having fun.

In this light, the crystal clear production, courtesy of the band and Kristin Anna Valtysdottir, formerly of Múm, further confounds. Recorded under a blanket of DIY tape hiss, it’d doubtless receive accolades as a melodic and structural step forward for a scene in which melody and instrumental prowess are far from paramount. Releasing the album on a cassette would be the easy way out, and I’d like to think the band knows this. As it stands, the album’s amateurishness is inescapably captured in sterile digital glory.

This is beyond a band not having the songs to back up ostentatious personality. If that were the case, it’d be simple to group them in with Xiu Xiu, Coco Rosie and the like. Some of the melodies, particularly “You Remind Me,” are downright lovely. The songs wind their way through six-minute-plus running times without seeming arbitrary, which is no small feat. Is it a case of a band not having the chops to perform their own songs? Maybe, but the question is off the mark – they know what the album sounds like.

Black Habit is simultaneously fragile and rigid, annoying and enchanting. Were it performed by three Jarboes accompanied by the Bad Seeds, it might have been a masterpiece. Whether or not that’s a compliment, your guess is as good as mine.

By Brad LaBonte

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