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Arms - Kids Aflame

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Artist: Arms

Album: Kids Aflame

Label: Melodic

Review date: Aug. 13, 2008

Arms, the lo-fi solo project from Harlem Shakes guitarist Todd Goldstein, asserts the primacy of melody over arrangement, and intelligence over expertise. The songs are constructed out of the simplest materials: a smattering of drums, a slash or two of guitars, a questing, vibrato-laced tenor that’s always a half-step from breaking. Still the tools in play mask the skill it takes to construct sly, winning songs like these, infused by sensibility that is as individual as DNA.

Instrumentally, Arms is all fuzz and clatter, splayed power chords and strung-out jangle. Goldstein, the guitarist, pursues the reckless good-enough aesthetic of mid-1990s lo-fi. Vocally, though, there’s a hint of Morrissey, tremulous ironies looped into manicured music hall flourishes, mordant slyness played for broad laughs. It’s a studied sort of singing, calculated, elegant, effete and well at odds with the offhand bedroom pop that hisses and fractures around it.

Consider, “Whirring,” the giveaway MP3 and first single. It slants and slashes at the outset, guitar wielded like a bayonet in GBV-ish flurries and forays. Yet, it’s broken not by standard indie-pop shouts and whispers, but a big romantic ’90s brit pop voice, minus the accent. The title cut shuffles ahead on a ukulele strum, as unarranged and ad hoc as a love song left on an answering machine. Yet the melody is strong, the singing stronger, with Goldstein blowing out the big notes like soap bubbles and everything submerged in harmonies. By the time the “ba-da-das” start near the end of the song, you can’t quite decide whether the song is haphazard or planned with exquisite care.

Indeed, the line between art and artlessness is so seamless, it disappears. The break in “Tiger Tamer” kicks off with a power-chorded chant that sounds stupid on paper, but brilliant on record. When Goldstein says, “They’re counting off in twos / They’re shaking in their shoes / They’re taking in the view / with everything to lose … Here we go,” you may feel an unaccountable rush of adrenaline, without really understanding why.

Nor can you, perhaps, fathom the reasons that an extended metaphor comparing a boy and an elevator should turn out to be so affecting. But there’s no contesting the sweetness, the melancholy, the dead-on descriptiveness of a verse like: “Jonathan, you’re turning into stairs again / You’re giving free rides to your friends / Your gentle head circled by sweet means and ends.”

You could dig through a whole month’s worth of fuzzy, home-recorded pop and not find a record as sweetly weird, as intelligently eccentric as this one. (Some of us have.) Kids Aflame is the good stuff, as loosely played as it is meticulously plotted.

By Jennifer Kelly

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