Tuesday, May 14, 2013

There Is No Mountain (2013)

Preface: In case you forgot or you missed it, There Is No Mountain opened for Angel Olsen at Neurolux back on 4/16.  Click here for the post on that show.  Below is a review of their new album.  I meant to get this out sooner, but, well, stuff happens...

There Is No Mountain cover artThe name change made me raise an eyebrow.  "There Is No Mountain?" I thought.  "What, like the Donovan song?  What was wrong with the name 'Ascetic Junkies?'  Don't tell me they've gone all mush-brained and woo-woo."

A listen to their self-titled new album's first track, "Owl Hymn," alleviated most of my fears on that point.  Sure, its lyrics talk about sending out your blood to search the deep end and what have you.  However, between the sprightly beats, Matt Harmon's spiky, dexterous guitar and Kali Giaritta's bright, sweet, strong vocals, the song trounces Donovan's warmed-over folk-rock psychedelia quite handily.  "Well, okay," I thought then.  "If you're gonna go all New Age-y, this is a fine way to do it.  At least they still sound like the Ascetic Junkies."

The next track, "Wave of Taboo," was even more encouraging.  Over a rippling, stuttering riff, Matt Harmon croons about how the titular wave--a metaphor for all of our earthly troubles and insecurities--will not leave him be.  Not that he'll give up without a fight: "Release me, release me," he and Giaritta chant on the blithely raging chorus.  "Aha," I thought then.  "So the world is still very much with them.  Okay, that's promising."

The rest of the album makes good on that promise.  The jittery "Nail Salon" playfully conveys the hustle and bustle of daily life that such establishments are meant to relieve.  "Stories" dreams of shuffling off all the baggage that comes with this mortal coil.  The subject matter gets heavier from there, ranging from the broken glass and broken dreams of "Broken Glass" to "A Blizzard's" vision of the end of civilization.  For anyone bothered by the totemic stuff at the beginning, there's "O! Painted Hills," which casts a cold eye on both "Top 40 fossils" and religious fundamentalism.  For anyone who wants to keep their options open, there's the declaration of agnosticism in "I'm Not Convinced."  Taken as a whole, the lyrics make clear that the sweetness and light of There Is No Mountain's music represent neither pie-eyed naivete nor willful denial.   Instead, they represent a philosophical triumph.

They're a musical triumph too.  The melodies and harmonies go down so smoothly that you may not notice right away how much work has gone into these songs.  The sudden tempo shifts and swinging rhythms add some kick.  Matt Harmon's nimble fretwork makes me wonder if the man did a tour with a metal band or two.  His light vocals may seem tossed off until you realize that they hit the bulls-eye on every single note.  As for Kali Giaritta, her voice reminds me a little of the good girls in those 40's and 50's films noirs: it seems all cute and innocent at first, but then you start to notice its muscle, heat and curves.

All of these elements coalesce in the album's masterpiece, "Good News."  In all of American music, does any other song so succinctly, levelheadedly, lightheartedly and wholeheartedly embrace death, loss and the meaninglessness of existence?  If so, I haven't heard it.

The same old windy whisper that tells the fruit to fall
Has blown into my bedroom, leaving word behind: "This is all."
But when I look around, I notice I've got everything,
That there's no difference between the joy we leave with and the joy we bring.

Paired with a fully blossomed tune and as sung by Giaritta, this becomes almost as perfect in its calm beauty as John Keats's "To Autumn."  I can't imagine setting Keats to a bouncy African beat, though.  Simply put, this is one of the greatest songs I've heard in my life.  And it helps make There Is No Mountain one of the best albums that I've heard this year.

You can find info on There Is No Mountain on Facebook and elsewhere online.  Their album is available now on Bandcamp.

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