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Moviola - Dead Knowledge / Broken Horses (Early Rarities)

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Artist: Moviola

Album: Dead Knowledge / Broken Horses (Early Rarities)

Label: Catbird

Review date: Feb. 25, 2008

For the past 15 years or so, Columbus, Ohio’s Moviola have been painstakingly crafting the musical frame around a few square miles of rusting Americana: of off-campus housing and elm trees, late night walks, and the occasional cookout; of hours washed away at the bar; of getting together; of separation; of watching kids grow up and the late summer sunset from the back porch. This is thankless work, the wait for something to change enough in the surroundings to warrant musical documentation at all, but the members of Moviola – Jake Housh, Jerry Dannemiller, Ted Hattemer, and Greg Bonnell – seem to have the requisite patience for such a task.

Having surfaced when Columbus’ ’90s music scene was already in full swing, it took Moviola a few stabs at finding their way, one which included learning how to successfully define a musical endeavor where everyone’s a songwriter of equally strong but mildly divergent stock. By the time their Frantic 10” was released, Guided by Voices had fully ascended into the vernacular of underground music and threatened to break through, leaving little to reinvent in terms of melodic, rough-hewn rock of nominal fidelity. Moviola responded through a refinement of their aesthetic. Having spent their formative years in the ’80s, the presence of Galaxie 500’s clean lines can be felt in much of their music, though Moviola focuses primarily on the clear-eyed longing in that sound, more Everly Brothers than Velvets, and with the requisite emotional core to avoid any lapses into maudlin or insincerity.

By the time their masterstroke, 1999’s The Durable Dream was released, attentions had drifted away from Columbus. The town’s flagship acts like Gaunt and the New Bomb Turks had backed into contracts and stylistic corners, while the local labels supporting the music, and even the scene that kept it all centered, started to come unmoored. Attentions skewed away from rock, and even though some groups stood out, those continuing its practice were considered by many to be ready for the boneyard. Support left for the big cities, resigned in tragedy, or decided to hang up their roles quietly, tending to their families and personal growth until they found themselves able to meet with the muse again. Bands that sprung up in the wake of all this sadness couldn’t shake the gravity of what came before them, and became content to chase their own tails. Moviola became somewhat of a part-time endeavor, slowing their release schedule to two lone albums (2001’s Rumors of the Faithful and 2004’s East of Eager), works given to the breezes of the four winds that carried them to old fans and few others.

Recorded off-hours in the retail space of Used Kids Records (in its new location, as the old one was lost to fire some year back), Dead Knowledge reaches back, as the title suggests, to the thousands of dusty albums languishing inside, as well as the wisdom within that had coalesced into a general worldview. Moviola’s music may no longer point skyward with hope – pirate radio dreams of reaching out to the world beyond have been laid to rest, the band instead nailing themselves down and letting that world find them – but the views realized in this robust set have a gentle, knowing confidence that far outstrips any airs to be worn. After a brief instrumental opener (“Iuka Ravine”) and a thank you to the individuals that supported them throughout the years (“Akron to Oakland”), an old piano launches into “Rudy,” one of the finest songs of 2007 and of Moviola’s entire career. Here’s where that knowledge comes in handy, in the execution of pitch-perfect rural rock past and present, touches of George Harrison and Todd Rundgren shining through the windows of a structure built uniquely to scale. It’s as pure a representation of coping with small town life (“You and me are still holding out, as if we’re so entitled”) as has been rendered in this age, one that could send stylized ’70s carpetbaggers like Midlake home with asscheeks full of rock salt. Dead Knowledge could have peaked there, but they sprint on regardless, adapting their approach to Appalachian folk (“Tears in a Jar”) and an ambitiously-orchestrated song cycle that takes up the entire back end of the album, a graceful swing through every one of Moviola’s fantasies – early rock, country balladry, wide-open and drunken musings from last call, the uber-importance of the hook. In this world, bitterness doesn’t bite so much as it flavors everyday life; we call it experience, really, and it’s offered only when asked. “You’ll go to college now / And learn how to break the law,” sounds off Housh from “Your Major,” as pristine a townie berating of short-lived, self-entitled undergrads as exists, possibly anywhere.

Not that this lot is anti-education, as Broken Horses, a collection of singles, demos, and unreleased tracks from Moviola’s earlier days, aims to catch newbeez up to speed with the attendant care of their output, as well as celebrate some works by departed bandmember Scotty Tabachnick. “This record sounds like people finally getting to do what they want,” states stately statesman Ron House in the 22-track collection’s brief liner notes. As the disc rolls on, it becomes clearer that maybe modern Columbus contempos like Times New Viking or Psychedelic Horseshit might be doing like Moviola wanted as well, as recordings from a decade back help themselves to the areas those acts currently claim in their own sound, albeit more cleanly and mannered in approach. It’s not as if the kids really want to listen to those who’ve lived it anyway – as if that was ever not the case – but a very similar overtone of abstract observation (“Signals Crossed”), use of picturesque lyrics (“St. Vincent” and the title track) and wilded out post-collegiate abandon (“Bank Machine,” recorded live at Stache’s in 1995) are meted out in putative, prescient capsules of song, none of which outlast any sort of welcome offered them. Everyone needs to learn and make mistakes on their own, evidence be damned, and the wide margin for error here might mean that maybe only diehard fans are going to make it to the end of an album this long. But put Broken Horses into perspective – there’s 300 copies, hand-numbered, in a spraypainted digipak with a picture glued to the front.

Moviola, sadly, may make music for the few, but it doesn’t have to end here, even as these releases give the notion of a band entering its final lap. Their music is out there, waiting under the layer of dust in dollar-bin CDs, singles and record sleeves starting to become unglued, waiting for your discovery of a small patch of life they’ve tended to with the care of archivists. Their winsome grasp continues to hold tremendous comfort for those in search of a feeling rather than a sound.

Note: Broken Horses (Early Rarities) is available on Spirit of Orr Records (www.spiritoforr.com).

By Doug Mosurock

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