Local trio A Minor Forest is to be commended for bringing a dose of metallic aggression to the polite little world of indie rock. Brilliantly angry, loud and combative, the band's music makes its members seem like the sort of guys who beat up sensitive Elliott Smith types for lunch money. As with most bullies, though, it's all a front: Hiding behind that cache of Metallica covers and those bludgeoning swells of sonic violation, they're sensitive fellas themselves.
Inindependence, the group's second album, is the proof. Musically controlled if not exactly restrained, the record offers a slightly different approach than their debut, Flemish Altruism (Constituent Parts '93-'96). There, the band members (Erik Hoversten, guitar and vocals; Andee Connors, drums; John Benson, bass) unleashed an approach to noise that worked deliberately to bait the listener: The music would often shift into slinky, delicate improvised moments, only to sucker-punch you with blasts of guitar screeches and drum pounds.
Hoversten was a magnificent screamer on that record, but on Inindependence he's mostly singing, voicing something deep in the mix that's more mournful than outraged. And it's not just a setup for another sucker punch either. Here, the band's approach to its improvisatory epics is more fluid than it's ever been, guilelessly moving from storm to calm to storm again. The closing song, "Discoier," doesn't even have an aggressive pretense, simply a lovely and haunting piano etude; it's music for hugging a Smiths fan.
Lest one think A Minor Forest has gone completely soft, the trio still employs knowingly absurd song titles ("Look at That Car, It's Full of Balloons," "... It's Salmon!!!"), and on balance the songs themselves remain brutalizing and exhausting. What have improved are the band's improvisational skills. Connors and Benson, both smart and flexible musicians to start with, approach the looseness of the songs with obvious glee, particularly on "The Smell of Hot," the album's 18-minute centerpiece; they're more comfortable straying from the paths that Hoversten's guitar lays out.
That guitar sound is more wide-ranging as well: The arpeggiated six-string chimes that garnered the band so many Slint comparisons have almost disappeared, making way for a more panoramic sound. While Hoversten still gets a few good screams in on "Michael Anthony," the energy the group's looking for isn't in the punk rock they once drew from. Now it's in the grace of a new melody, the thrill of a well-placed drum roll, the beauty of a burst of feedback. How sensitive of them.
-- Mark Athitakis
On his 1995 debut Bloomed, Richard Buckner tried to be a good boy and play country music the way the history books and his No Depression neo-traditionalist peers told him to. The sometime-San Franciscan spent time drifting through Texas and the South for authenticity's sake, working hard to prove how adept he was at mimicking country's themes: His deep and caustic voice ached at the proper moments, the guitar twanged in all the right places, and the lyrics struck all the appropri-ate notes of love, travel, and anguish.
The good-boy tactic made him respectable; when he later realized that he'd have more fun turning tradition inside out, he stumbled across genius. Last year's Devotion & Doubt did practically everything wrong, beautifully: Road songs turned into car wrecks, pianos showed up where the steel guitars are supposed to go, and the love lyrics that demanded delicacy were bellowed or sung snidely. The album was meant as a collection of love songs for his then-wife; after he divorced, even Buckner himself noticed that Devotion made a great breakup record as well. Few pop records can claim such inventiveness in both sound and emotional scope. It was a neat trick. But it's not the sort of thing you pull off twice.
Sonically, Since tries a similar approach. With J.D. Foster working again as producer, the album strives to preserve the moody, disconsolate tone of Devotion, though Buckner's bright and hooky rock instincts have crept into the mix: Songs like "Jewelbomb," "Brief & Boundless," and the brilliant opener "Believer" all amplify the ominous and dramatic feel of his best compositions. But when he's trying to continue his reworking of country themes, he stumbles. Part of the problem is lazy songcraft. Several of the songs -- like "Faithful Shooter," "10-Day Room," and "The Ocean Cliff Clearing" -- are brief two-minute guitar sketches that don't leave enough room for storytelling. Elsewhere Buckner relies heavily on unrevealing poetic turns of phrase: a woman who's "a sudden little scrapper," himself "a sucked-up shadow."
Buckner's voice, so evocative and unrestrained on Devotion, becomes measured here, even on weightier laments like "Raze" or "Boys, the Night Will Bury You." Had he cared enough to finish them, these scribblings might have become moving story-songs; instead he places too much faith in their unique harshness, and in the clever consonance of the words he packs together. While that makes it sound original, that doesn't always make it sound interesting. Since is formulaic stuff, even if it is a formula Buckner invented himself.
-- Mark Athitakis