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Experimental Dental School - Jane Doe Loves Me

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Artist: Experimental Dental School

Album: Jane Doe Loves Me

Label: Cochon

Review date: Jun. 6, 2008

Oakland trio Experimental Dental School are a willfully weird band. From their inception nearly a decade ago, they have been perhaps too easily overlooked for their occasional kooky-for-kooky’s-sake approach. Once the listener clears the initial hurdle that song titles like “Obscene Back Porch Floating” and “Zeroeth Birthday” pose, the apparently scatterbrained qualities of their third full-length, Jane Doe Loves Me, belie a unique attention to detail. Jesse Hall, who sings and plays “guitar-o-bass” (an instrument of his own invention) seems driven mostly to write songs whose serpentine, oddly-metered construction stave off boredom. And when Jane Doe Loves Me falls short (“Microscope Lab Voices,” “What Ghosts See”), it’s a function of its impatience, even as it sometimes succeeds (the title track, “Drum Circuit’s Lake”) by virtue of that same trait. While none of the songs here feel incomplete, they sometimes rely on the listener to fill in the gaps and to hear past otherwise inexplicable transitions.

Comparisons with neighbors and friends Deerhoof (drummer Greg Saunier produced Jane Doe) have followed the band throughout their nearly decade-long existence. And while there’s no denying that keyboardist and singer Shoko Horikawa’s fey, torchy singing on “Obscene Back Porch Floating,” along with the soft-focus music it floats on, are direct descendants of Satomi & Co., applying these comparisons to the album as a whole would miss the point. Experimental Dental School are indebted to classic rock, but a different vintage than the kind Deerhoof strives to emulate: these are Beefheart-and-potatoes avant-rock types, with less of an inclination towards either free jazz or Rolling Stones blooze than their friends. “Drum Circuit’s Lake” is one of the album’s strongest tracks, due in no small part to the audible effort the band exerts to fall into the kind of lopsided lock-groove that’s a Beefheart trademark.

On the other end of the spectrum, “Lord’s Lap” gets mushy and undefined, hitting all the ‘weird music’ signposts with less joy than obligation, spending its time following lopsided scales and hoping they’ll lead somewhere interesting or improbable. But when things are working well, Experimental Dental School has a unique exuberance, one that recalls the fierce perversion of Arab on Radar’s repression rock. Instead of wailing about how sometimes he’s just gotta jerk off, Hall takes a more oblique route that doesn’t always pay off. “In my past life I did bad/ Money for love I had/ Many ghosts have sex with me/ Now they warn catastrophe,” Hall sings in his affectedly affectless robot voice, trying to keep up with the title track’s broken gallop. One of the album’s best songs by a stretch, the song oscillates between forced non sequitur and hinting at a sort of topicality. The chorus suggests that the song’s (and album’s) premise might have been something as banal as a news clipping, and the song a fantasy shaped around it.

Some of the best moments are the smallest, and many of them revolve around Horikawa’s keyboard playing. Take the squirrelly, high keyboard notes that cap off the chorus of “Shoko Can,” the way the singer’s voice transforms into a keyboard note in “Drum Circuit’s Lake,” or “Whale Drone”’s swooping keyboard peals. In moments like these, the whole picture of the band seems to snap into focus, and each member’s contribution seems totally purposeful and unique.

In the final analysis, Jane Doe is a hard album to weigh because it’s unclear exactly where the band should be at this point in their career. In comparison to Hideous Dance Attack!!! or 2 ½ Creatures, the album’s a concentrated, focused version of some of the same preoccupations - animals, bodies, spazzing out. But it also falls into a familiar holding pattern that distracts from its accomplishment, and this often happens when the band is best poised to command the listener’s attention. Whatever one says about them, Experimental Dental School are determined to go at their own pace. While Jane Doe Loves Me doesn’t go out of its way to prove itself, I’m sure the band would be flattered that you’re interested in listening.

By Brandon Bussolini

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