Before I officially begin this review, I would like to take a moment to note the difficulty inherent in critiquing a work of art that a friend has submitted to me for consideration. I have only previously done this once, in January 2010, here http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2010/01/justyn-with-y-swansong.html. This album received a positive review in spite of the fact that I generally do not like to listen to "folk" music. The genre of that album was arguably "folk +" but I found it interesting, and I enjoyed the production: being recorded in a natural setting, the mostly quiet acoustic strumming gave the album a warm feel.
Now I move onto BELT. BELT is the band of a friend of a friend--or I might say is the band of a friend. I went to the singer's birthday party at his house. That was fun. However I do not think we would hang out but for my friend that invited me to that party. Ironically, however, this singer was also part of another band previously referenced on Flying Houses here http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2010/07/wolf-parade-expo-86.html. That band was Mercury Landing. Wolf Parade has nothing to do with Mercury Landing but the song "Yulia" seemed to be related to that band for reasons (another side project of that band?) that I cannot recall.
Mercury Landing was a "funk" band. Much like "folk," I do not care much for "funk." However, I would go to shows (when convenient) in order to show my support and also because other friend's bands would generally be on the bill as well.
Thus when I first put BELT onto my iPod and played it, I was expecting "funk" but got something else entirely, which is very hard to pin down.
Some notes from BELT's press materials may illustrate this: they have been an "underground" band in Brooklyn for 10 years. This might give rise to the presumption that they play music like, oh, say, the Dirty Projectors, TV on the Radio, Liars, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Black Dice, !!!, Fiery Furnaces, LCD Soundsystem, and Oneida--either all mish-mashed together into one sound, or like one band specifically.
However, they sound like neither. Associating themselves with Brooklyn is therefore misleading, but one cannot say that just because one happens to be a musician that lives in a city heavily associated with a particular "scene" that has a particular "sound" (but also, to be sure, is quite populous) one has to sound like one's peers (or heroes, as the case may be for "amateurs"). It is not fair to say to someone, "you should move to Omaha because you sound like you belong on Saddle Creek."
BELT doesn't sound like they belong on Saddle Creek, but it does inch more closely to their sound. Perhaps this is all beating around the bush and I should just get to the point--is the album worth hearing?
I do have to say that it makes me more comfortable, as a critic, to be able to pin down a band's sound. But the short answer is yes (if you like the bands I will be comparing them to shortly).
Unfortunately when I try to pin BELT down, the comparisons I draw will probably prove distasteful to everyone. There is one comparison I can make with which few would complain: Wavves. BELT sounds like Wavves to the extent that weed is amongst the primary lyrical subject matter. This is no more apparent than on "Priorities" (the second track) and "Maria Juana" (the third), and particularly the latter, which is arguably the most professional sounding song on the album - though also the most juvenile. Some bands (apart from Wavves) have built entire careers around writing songs about weed (the Grateful Dead and their progeny and Phish come to mind). However I do not think it is easy to make a really great album with this template. BELT does not attempt to do that, but at times flirts with the idea.
It is impossible to avoid mentioning the comparisons which will draw complaints, and it is easiest, unfortunately, to focus on the singer's voice to pin them down: Barenaked Ladies and Blues Traveler.
Now, it is important to put this in context. Few Generation Y'ers will find much to like about these two bands. They were popular when we were young. I distinctly remember "One Week" being popular on MTV (before reality shows became de rigeur) and thinking it was a quirky, fun, creative song at first but made me want to puke by about the fifth time I heard it on the radio. The video added more to the song I guess, though the song itself did demonstrate lyrical skill and melodic savvy.
Blues Traveler is harder for me to remember. I remember John Popper being fat, and apparently he is no longer fat (according to my older brother, who met him a few years ago), and I am sorry to say this but I think his band is only going to be popular if he gets fat again.
Now. My two oldest siblings are Generation X'ers (presently 42 and 39) and both liked Blues Traveler and Barenaked Ladies--and the latter way before anyone else did. This may be going far afield but my point is that Generation X can appreciate those bands, but Generation Y generally has a negative attitude towards them, from what I can tell.
So if I say BELT sounds like those bands it's going to piss everyone off, and they'll say, we don't sound like that, and if I say, "they're a band whose time has already passed," it's going to sound like they've missed their opportunity to explode. But it's the opposite. If there is anytime they are primed to explode it is now.
BELT will play on Friday, October 19th, at 9 PM at Wicked Willy's as part of the CMJ Music Marathon.
Let me take a little tangent and say that I used to manage a band and I know what it is like to "produce" an "amateur" album. I "managed" two records, or 8 songs between two bands. Two EPs, or "demos" or whatever you want to call them. The first one cost a few hundred bucks and seemed like it had a professional sound, recorded at a studio on North 8th St. in Williamsburg. The second was recorded for free at NYU music studios by a friend who later joined the band after I left NYC and could not continue on as manager. The second arguably sounds better than the first.
The point is this: sometimes when you try to sound "professional" you end up sounding more amateur than if you actually recorded it in an amateur fashion (see also, Wavves).
Disquietude was released on April 22, 2011 and is almost 18 months old. It was apparently recorded during a turbulent time and some of the songs on the album are actually a bit dark. One imagines that their sound has changed, particularly since, in the press materials, they state that their new album (which is untitled as of yet so far as I can tell) is "grittier." Disquietude is considered to have a "pristine" sound. Now, my stereo speakers have deteriorated quite a bit, but when I played my bands (Plastic Faces and Phosphates) through my iPod on them, or BELT through my iPod on them, both sounded extremely distorted. This may be because the albums--all 3--are recorded loudly. The volume is just high on the album automatically (unlike, say, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, which is considered one of the loudest records of all time, but which is actually recorded very quietly--you really need to turn the volume up to hear it).
Getting to play a CMJ Showcase is a big deal, and I hope that BELT finds a bigger audience through it.
The album goes through many different emotions, but what remains most memorable about the band is their sense of humor. However there is also a sense of sarcasm and darkness and pessimism about it. It's a disquieting effect (!) and leads me to the conclusion that BELT is a "singles band" and not an "album band." Some of the songs on the album are clearly more "worked-over" than others, and it can show.
Also, this may be a technical problem, but the song "God on the Couch" is silent, at least from the zip file I downloaded. I do not think this is intentional. But if it is I fail to see the point other than to make an "actual" secret song--which the last track clearly sounds like.
The last track is the best track on the album. The ending of the first track on the album is one of its best moments, but it is a pretty standard "noise jam breakdown." I do like the song "Are You Gonna Be OK" when it gets to the heavy part. And I do find the lyrics across the entire album generally interesting.
The last track is three minutes long and extremely strange. It is almost what the "Brooklyn sound" might be for this band. It is just weird noise and feedback. However I found it more interesting than anything else on the album because it comes out of left field: you are not expecting BELT to have an experimental side.
In conclusion, I come to no conclusion regarding BELT. I cannot say that I will play Disquietude every single day for the next two or three weeks (as I did with, oh, Centipede Hz. (Brooklyn again!) or This is Happening) but I would be interested in seeing them live. They would seem to be a fun live band, and though many may find the comparisons I've made to be odious ones, those bands also built their reputation on being "fun live bands." Sometimes it takes a while to put out the album (or the single) that catapults them into stardom. For BELT it has been 10 years. But as far as I know, the gestation period for a band like them to hit it big is very close to 10 years (see also, The Hold Steady).
There. You have a comparison that most people won't complain about. Terrence B. sounds nothing like Craig Finn, and their subject matter is only arguably related, but they are both Brooklyn bands that unabashedly do not sound like Brooklyn bands. It took a while for Craig Finn to get known, but once he did he ran with it, and while I personally may feel that The Hold Steady has declined since the departure of Franz Nicolay, they are still a band that I will pay attention to and try to see live--if they're not charging too much.
It's entirely possible that BELT's forthcoming album will be their Almost Killed Me and their album after that will be their Separation Sunday and come summer of 2014 they will be asked to play the Pitchfork Festival. Entirely possible.
But the music industry, like most industries, is a cold one. It is a long and harrowing climb to the top, and few can make it. I wouldn't exactly put my money on BELT to playing Pitchfork in a couple years, but while it would certainly surprise me, it would not shock me. They have the skill; it is only a matter of execution now.