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Singer - Unhistories

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Artist: Singer

Album: Unhistories

Label: Drag City

Review date: Mar. 20, 2008

The late, great Chicago band U.S. Maple forged their own trails in the late ’90s and early aughts, isolating rock’s constituent parts so they could be arranged in creatively non-linear ways that managed to turn boring orthodoxy square on its ear. Swinging like a punched up Magic Band for the post-hardcore set, U.S. Maple were a sight to behold, leaving behind a trail of records that can still cause tremors if you let them.

Singer is U.S. Maple guitarist Todd Rittman and drummer Adam Vida’s newest project, one that immediately establishes itself on Unhistories as another vehicle for off-kilter rhythms and counter-intuitive guitar lines that stagger and sway in the most unpredictable of ways. That’s not to suggest that the seven tracks on display here are simply exercises in channeling the ghosts of the past. Rounding out the group here are the 90 Day Men/Lichens’ Robert A. A. Lowe and Town & Country/the Bird Show’s Ben Vida, two performers who have quickly and capably crafted their own catalogues of exploratory, experimentally-inclined records that document their extended forays into drone-based compositions and warm-tempered improvisation.

On a first pass, none of the tracks on Singer’s debut really seem to make much use of either Lowe or Ben Vida’s fairly extensive palettes. Meticulously plotted from front to back, every passage on Unhistories betrays improv and neo-psychedelics for carefully considered and plaintively percussive rock bursts. All the same, however, the album traffics in an instrumental fluidity that forsakes the more jarring moves in U.S. Maple’s book for graceful transitions that allow for more dynamic segues. On album opener “Slow Ghosts,” for example, each run up and down the fretboard is subsumed into every successive cascade of drums, gradually offering the guitars space to echo off into the distance. Likewise, the monochromatic thud of “Divining” slowly gives way to genteel moments of acoustic guitar that make for some of the most tuneful sequences of these four men’s careers.

As the disc progresses, however, the crucial role that Lowe plays in Singer becomes obvious, be it in the extended drone breakdowns of “Please, Tell the Justices We’re Fine,” or the way his near-falsetto vocals mesh so well with those of his bandmates. Surprisingly, Unhistories is as much of a vocal record as it is anything else, an assemblage of voices that, more often than not, brilliantly harmonize as one. It’s an effect that helps mask each track’s greatest move – their ability to defy directional expectations and end up at a destination that’s ultimately better than one could have predicted. Singer work that idea pretty effectively throughout, taking the initial walking rhythms of “Dumb Smoke” through chiming pop territory for a brief spell before offering up a closing speaker crunch. Similarly, album closer “Mauvais Sang” opens on the drone, the percussion ping-ponging back and forth before slowing the pace for increasingly laconic guitar lines.

While these four seem to have gladly put aside U.S. Maple’s more confrontational elements for glad-handed stabs at relatively soothing sounds, there is nothing here that could be remotely construed as orthodox. Rather, each of these seven songs is a twisting, turning trip through the hands of four sublimely talented players and increasingly deft songwriters. With each successive spin, it becomes more apparent that this album has less and less to do with the collective foursome’s past, instead presenting a largely successful attempt to dialogue with and break from their own traditions.

By Michael Crumsho

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