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You could say that, in general, I prefer "weird" music; at least my disdain for traditional "rock" bands - those run of the mill, Budweiser-swilling creative snoozes who continue to rehash themes of the previous two decades one 12-track album after another - is no secret. It isn't that I simply think the Hold Steady are woefully unexciting, or that Titus Andronicus are over-rated, and that neither are ultimately contributing anything beyond more consumer goods to the world at large. There are a lot of bands churning out familiar sounds on an endless conveyor belt of plastic. My amazement lies more in the fact that, when I hear a song like the Hold Steady's "Lord I'm Discouraged" and am 100-percent sure it has to be a parody, I'm greeted with unbelieving looks from their earnest fans. "No way dude, 'everything's fried here in Memphis' is brilliant."
I'm not some ill-humored, no-fun bastard. I'll crawl halfway through the partition window of a London cab to debate the merits of Bobby McFerrin with the driver. I also lived through the 1980s and 90s, and (somewhere) have the Screaming Trees and Guns N' Roses and even Better than Ezra cassettes to prove it. I get irony too - that "trucker hat" logo on the Hold Steady's fan site is well played. But, seriously, doesn't "Constructive Summer" sound like an outtake from a smarmy E-Street Band rip-off outfit soundtracking a Coors Light commercial? Yeah, its ironic, but does "Lord I'm Discouraged" really move anyone? For crissakes, are they using whammy bars?
Fair or not, that has been my general outlook on rock bands for quite a while. It is also why I'm so surprised that Land of Talk, who are perhaps best described as essentially a throw-back to the era of Kurt Cobain's reign, have such staying power. I might easily dismiss a bar band, but I actually like noisy psychedelic bands and have taken my share of spins through Microcastle; yet I have no itch to reach for the repeat button as "Twilight at Carbon Lake" drops off. Rock bands with a traditionalist slant just fail to make an emotional connection. On the other hand when Elizabeth Powell's soothing voice and gentle guitar fade out on "Troubled," the fragile acoustic number that brings the otherwise electrified Some Are Lakes to a close, I'm already headed back to the album's opener. Ironically it is "Troubled" that perhaps most clearly reflects the involvement of Bon Iver primary Justin Vernon, who engineered the 10-song album.
To rewind a bit, what makes Land of Talk so successful is not just the infectiousness of their songs, which quickly become intimations of a time before the truly touching and diverse (yet somehow remotely connected) moments of the "grunge" years - from the universality of Nirvana to the acquired taste of For Squirrels - washed over into the grand reservoir of rock music and created a bunch of snoozable tripe, from the Toadies to Seven Mary Three on down to some of the junk we hear today. What makes Land of Talk undeniable is the intangible it that the trio's songs have, the way in which a cut like "Give Me Back My Heart Attack" goes from loping to driving to jaunty without a care in the world; the instrumentals have the barely-under-control flavor of a less frantic Turing Machine, yet all the while Powell's completely disarming voice rides above the din like an agitation filter. Everything on the album sounds much more loud, chaotic, and swaddled in flannel than it is. In short, Land of Talk sounds very much like the 1990s, yet for the distinctly throwback tones of Some Are Lakes they also have a very fresh and in-the-now quality about them, despite being completely free of any laptops, cellos, hand claps or Moogs.
The band consists of singer and guitarist Powell, bassist Joe Yarmush and drummer Eric Thibodeau, the latter two being Americans recently imported as replacement players in a three-person lineup that has been anything but stable. Land of Talk is without a doubt Elizabeth Powell's band, and one would be hard pressed to find a reason to assume otherwise, either on record or at a live performance. When I caught the band earlier this month, a few shows shy of wrapping up a European tour, Powell commanded the audience's attention with both her playing and her presence, but without the brashness of Karen O or the cleavage of Jenny Lewis. Her feminine gravitas is very subtle. Maybe it was planned as such, but in the small, darkly lit club, directly on the south bank of the Main River across from the glass and steel skyline of Frankfurt's financial district, it seemed like the lights didn't even bother shining on Yarmush or Thibodeau. Powell is beautiful, to be sure, but on stage her charisma is based not on her physical attributes but on a je ne sais quoi that, when it all boils down, sets Land of Talk apart from their peers. Running down a list of overblown and already forgotten "rock" bands that stretches from A Place To Bury Strangers to Urge Overkill, the thing they all have in common is that we all knew what we liked about them from the get-go. There was no mystery to them, nothing that you couldn't quite put your finger on. Even ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, who issued a stellar record in Source Tags & Codes, faded fast once everyone got over the brilliance of their name and the fact that they not only reminded us of Sonic Youth but smashed their instruments. They may only have the one album under their belts, but there is definitely something about Land of Talk that lends an air of inevitability to their future. I can't put my finger on it, but that doesn't mean there isn't something powerful there.
When I saw them perform the trio held forth with the quiet confidence of a band tight enough to let loose a little and explore the edges of songs that don't lose their impact when things get a little sloppy. Taking Land of Talk's back-story into consideration, I gather that adaptation is a cornerstone of their offense. Powell has gone from folksier solo material to the far more rambunctious rattling of Applause Cheer Boo Hiss (the group's debut EP), with a lineup of players shifting in and out, so when a string on her guitar unexpectedly snapped it was more amusement than disaster. "Guitars are like people," she said of the slight awkwardness in playing a backup loaner while her SG was restrung, making a tight cradling gesture and then miming a bear hug to indicate the physical differences. "Some you can hold close, others are hard to get your arms around." When the band eased into "It's Okay," the literal and emotional center of Some Are Lakes, any discomfort seemed to dissolve.
The understated "Yuppie Scum," the track that leads off Some Are Lakes, exemplifies many of Land of Talk's most endearing features. The drum cadence is unassuming at best, and the bass notes that begin to rumble over it with a cool, Pixies-esque nonchalance are no more spectacular. For a generation that cut their teeth on songs like "Come As You Are," however, they sound almost like whispers from home. When Powell's mid-range chords chime in with the jangle of some long-lost Boys Life track, things immediately make sense. Land of Talk just click. To my ears, the song and the album as a whole sound like the logical music of 2008 in a world where bands like Creed didn't push the dude from Lifter Puller into becoming the dude from the Hold Steady.
Both Land of Talk and Some Are Lakes are, in the age of Animal Collective, relatively straightforward. But that is not to say they are obvious or without an edge. For the bottomless warmth of Powell's vocals, which generally have the reassuring softness of a bedtime story, her lyrics are anything but pastoral. In fact, they're rather dark, but coming as they do on the gentle current of her sultry voice, they remain oddly detached and thus a little bit scarier still. Lines like "Man, we got a bleeder" resonate with a cool ambivalence, and when she vocalizes lines like "Yeah I know how to kill/ but I hate how it feels" it is weird to not know whether to shudder or hold her hand.
Land of Talk are a very un-hip, un-synthed, completely bombastic and driving and engaging trio that happens to be fronted by one of the sweetest voices this side of powdered sugar. There are no drum machines, no laptop glitches, no samples, and no Brooklyn chic, just solid songs on a rock record that is remarkable in its understated girth. Your roommate's band in college might have had the same idea, but they never wrote anything close to "Give Me Back My Heart Attack." Who knows, this time next year I may not consider Some Are Lakes one of the ten best albums of 2008, but right now it sure as hell sounds like it. Either way, Land of Talk blow most of the current crop of "rock" bands out of the water with half the effort and nearly half the bodies. Plus Alfoldy gave them a 9/10, which says a lot coming from a guy who'd probably give Beethoven an 8. SEE ALSO: www.landoftalk.com
SEE ALSO: www.saddle-creek.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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