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Tre Orsi - Devices + Emblems

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Artist: Tre Orsi

Album: Devices + Emblems

Label: Comedy Minus One

Review date: Jun. 7, 2010

Two anecdotes, two chestnuts for those who have lived through more than two decades, and they’re not even worth telling in full. First: the “rock is dead” argument, posited yet again to me by a colleague in a bar the other night. “Whatever is new, whatever is going to change music, it’s happening outside of America, and once it gets to us …” I drifted off. I was drinking through my last DJ shift at this bar, and was finding little common ground with my friend, because while we were having his discussion, rock music was blaring, and everyone seemed to be enjoying it. I respect this man’s opinion, and furthermore I know he is right on many levels, but I know what I like, and I’m not alone.

Second: the “way back when” story. Flipping through LPs at a store the other day, I was chatting up my buddy who pulls some shifts at the store. We were looking at the record of an NYC band in the “specialty metal” bracket, recalling one member who we both knew from doing time living in Pittsburgh. “I knew him since he was about eight years old,” he said. I followed with “yeah, I booked his high school band once to open for Modest Mouse at my college. Maybe thirty people showed up.” We both laughed at that. What’s funnier is that I saw Modest Mouse play to maybe seven or eight people at a prior date. These shows happened between 1996 and 1998, during which time Modest Mouse released two double albums, an EP, and a short stack of seven-inch singles to minor acclaim. This was also around the time that DJs Spooky and Shadow, the Grassy Knoll, Warp Records, and any number of well-dressed, dot-com employed drink sippers were gathering around rock’s freshly dug grave. Generations beget enmity for that which followed. These examples would not be the first, and obviously are not the last. What’s shiny and new is always going to catch our attention. Only nothing’s all that new anymore.

Both these tales bear repeating when confronted with a record like Tre Orsi’s debut album. Devices + Emblems carries with it sturdy, well-rehearsed musicianship on actual rock instruments – they’re a trio, and the dynamic of such a traditional lineup means that anyone slacking off does so at the expense of their bandmates. I first encountered them through their excellent track “The Engineer,” from Matador’s Casual Victim Pile compilation of Austin/Denton, TX bands (let the record state that I may be one of the few people outside of the locales who not only listened to that collection multiple times, but bought an album because of it). The record sat alone in the stacks at Dave’s Records in Chicago, hand-numbered and adorned in plain packaging. On its plastic sleeve, the proprietor wrote on a tiny decal, “OKKERVIL RIVER MEMS,” a fact I have yet to certify. If I hadn’t picked it up, then who would?

Plenty would argue that Tre Orsi traffics in a dead form. With crisp, balanced production by Bedhead’s Bubba Kadane, and the sort of Sonic Youth/Unwound-informed octave dynamics, surges in volume and measured aggression, and literate, even masculine lyrical reads, this could have easily surfaced in 1995 and no one would have been shocked. There was a day when bands like Silkworm, Paul Newman, June of 44, Hurl, Dis- and Bedhead would have released a variant on this record, to the stifled joy of bespectacled guys with short hair, bespectacled girls who wrote zines, and the plaintive, well-considered mixtapes both genders would make for each other. Even its release pedigree reaches back to the ‘90s; Comedy Minus One’s proprietor is Jon Solomon, whose My Pal God label capped off years of efforts to extend the joys of indie rock, before it became Indie Rock, and a way to sell products to the record-buying public. Enough imitators eventually appeared to simultaneously undercook, oversell, and along with the vestiges of emo, commodify and ultimately usurp this sort of sound. True enough, most of the members of these bands escaped their college towns in their mid-to-late 20s and got on with the lives of their parents. Nothing wrong with that, but it is worth remembering how we got away from this idea of music as something to do.

None of this really matters, though, because even if Tre Orsi’s members were vibing off of 1995 while making their record, this is 2010, and Devices + Emblems is a modern object worthy of updated evaluation. And what a peach it is! While I’m never surprised by what it is that they do (after reading the above, I hope you all understand just why), I’m taken aback by their particular voice to the proceedings. “Sargasso” shuffles along in introspection, surging forth at times in a whiskey-soaked lament on the hazards of personal disconnection. “The Visible Hand,” one of the best songs here, saunters forth with upfront guitars, masculine bass anchor, and a slowly shifting pseudo-melody — remember, about half of the bands from which Tre Orsi draws inspiration were more known for their hooks than any actual concessions to pop structure — which stays right by the listener throughout, and sticks around after it’s done. “And If I Never,” another winner, salutes the tendency to procrastinate, and the eventual hermitage that the act builds, across confident, slightly pensive musicianship. These nine songs don’t stick around long enough for eye-rolls to register, and the brevity of the album as a whole might point to its success, but the impeccable craft and the earnest spirit poured into the mold is all their own.

The torch all but extinguished, the bitter old man inside of me wants to give credit to members Matthew Barnhart, Howard Draper and Bryan VanDivier for sticking to antiquated convention. But the city-living realist that pays the bills to keep a roof over the old man’s head won’t be able to argue with some kid rocking a striped shirt and Bieber hair that there isn’t any more intrinsic value in Tre Orsi’s steez than there is in any of the dozens of interchangeable Jesus and Mary Chain worship acts out there now. They’re all trying to raise funds off Kickstarter for another unmemorable single to dump out in the void, in editions small enough that hopefully no one will notice, or care enough to deride them, because they spent as much cash on a single that we used to pay for a full LP.

Which brings us to a third anecdote, thought up by someone else and copied on a review card of a seven-inch record in my college radio station’s record library: “If you polish a seamless object, it will shine.” There’s more to that than you might realize, and by listening to a band like Tre Orsi, that point will be hammered home more indelibly than any nautical-themed tattoos you might be wearing. The notion of ‘90s indie rock might as well be folk music (or at least the sort of folk music we looked down upon in the ‘90s) but goddamnit, this is my folk music, and I’m sure more than a handful of you wouldn’t argue that it’s yours, too.

By Doug Mosurock

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