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The Art Museums - Rough Frame

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Artist: The Art Museums

Album: Rough Frame

Label: Woodsist

Review date: Apr. 2, 2010

The embrace of amateurism has become ubiquitous because it bridges the gap between fan and band with an everyman vibe that brings with it a transgressive populism. Such simple and/or sloppy music is necessarily countercultural, because it’d presumably never fly with the industry suits. These bands, then, are propelled forward by passion at the minimum and revolutionary ambition at the most. Which makes it exciting, and results in evocative new names like “punk” and “new wave” and “indie rock.”

But eventually it all becomes big business, and amateurism becomes a suspicious affectation. Carpetbaggers lacking talent figure out how to make lemonade and help to collectively drag a scene down towards the lowest common denominator. And honest evaluation of new records is tainted by a nagging feeling that this has gotta be a scam.

This digression isn’t meant to imply that the Art Museums are at the bottom the new lo-fi heap. But Rough Frame is no doubt a middling record in the worst way. The one constant is a psychedelic tinge that clearly marks it as a product of the current San Francisco weird pop elite; Josh Alper of Whysp and Glenn Donaldson of Skygreen Leopards are the main curators here. Beyond that, though, their stylistic pastiche becomes survey of generationally-defining movements in guitar music. Mods, glam rockers, punkers, new wavers, K Records and Kiwi popsters, and nineties ur-indie rockers all get their due, but in mostly superficial fashion.

I’m not knocking variety. But the desire for the “eclectic” label has increasingly diluted the meaning of that word. You’d be hard-pressed to even call them jacks-of-all-trades; in this case, non-committal turns these so many songs into non-starters. The Fischer Price synthesizers that start off the album on “We Can’t Handle It” plod along at a purgatorial pace that’s as grating as it is sleep-inducing.

Most of the record takes this steady-as-she-goes mentality, demonstrating proficiency and competency that becomes god awful boring. And yet every once in a while they wake up and let it rip. There’s the Byrds-meets-the Free Design romp of “Sculpture Gardens” which first gets things rolling and is quickly followed by the metropolitan “Paris Cafes,” which goes toe to toe with almost any song off of Bee Thousand. As counterintuitive as it is, it’s only when the band moves closer towards the imitation end of the influence scale that they themselves really start to shine.

As simple as it seems, tempo may be the ultimate differentiator between Rough Frame and labelmates’ Hanoi Janes’ Year of Panic. Both have the same historical antecedents and sonic material at their disposal. But the Hanoi Janes avoid self-consciousness in the service of speed and enthusiasm, creating a freshness and instant gratification that’s the result of such unadulterated amateur music. The Art Museums’ careful cherrypicking, however, necessitates a slower and more deliberate pace, allowing you to scrutinize them much more closely than is necessary for simple pop tunes. So yeah, it’s the thought that counts. But in this case, overthinking starts to count against them.

By Evan Hanlon

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