An ambling, deftly-building piece of homespun wisdom that centers around a swaying, repeating, group-sung chorus. Slightly goofy yet genuinely inspiring.
The fine line between good-catchy and bad-catchy remains indistinct. And, of course, one person’s good-catchy may be another’s bad-catchy. But I do have two basic guidelines. First, there has to be an actual melody. Mindless repetition, or silly chanting, for me, is bad-catchy, not good-catchy. Secondly, there should be a sense of softness to counteract the unavoidable bluntness of aiming to be catchy in the first place. Neither ears nor minds generally speaking like to be bludgeoned without respite. And by softness I am not talking about volume; I simply mean I want to sense the humanity in the music. Lord knows the songwriting factories behind most of today’s Top 40 (arguably a more homogeneous-sounding Top 40 than at most other points in pop music history) have taken formulaic bad-catchiness to new heights (or depths), with robotic sheen and mercenary techniques obliterating any whiff of palpable human-being-ness.
“Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)” is an antidote to that kind of musical conception and delivery. An ambling, deftly-building piece of homespun wisdom, the song centers around a swaying, repeating, group-sung chorus that manages the neat trick of sounding both goofy and inspiring. While the song employs one recurring melody for both verse and chorus, it adds depth and interest via heedful instrumentation and a variety of counter-melodies that rise in conjunction with the chorus as the band forges onward with redoubtable exuberance.
The title track to the band’s new album, “Divisionary” has been floating around the internet for a few months, but only recently, to my knowledge, became available as a free and legal MP3, via NPR Music’s excellent SXSW-related cache of downloads. The album was released on Partisan Records at the end of March. Ages and Ages is a seven-member band from Portland, and were featured previously on Fingertips in August 2011.
While it has an unmistakable Grateful Dead meets Neil Young kind of hippie-dippie orientation (and not that there’s anything wrong with that!), there’s also something grounded and purposeful in the air here.
With the head-bobbing backbeat and the guitar-based, sing-along vibe of a hippie anthem from 1970, “Navy Parade” is something of an antidote to the synthesized gravity of “Year Off.” Instead of two-person, California-cool digital manipulation we get a Portland-based septet recording live, singing into one microphone. But hey: the fact that each kind of song exists makes the other all the more powerful and appealing. That’s something that the diversity-averse among us never seem to understand.
But I digress. As for “Navy Parade,” while it has that Grateful Dead meets Neil Young kind of hippie-dippie orientation (and not that there’s anything wrong with that!), there’s also something grounded and purposeful in the air here. Actually, as falsetto-y front guys go, Tim Perry oozes more Thom Yorke than Neil Young; he’s got that kind of edge if you listen for it, and the song, without abandoning the central shuffle, builds in intensity. This is not merely a question of volume; the structure here is built to acquire potency as it progresses. Part of this has to do with the verse’s melody line, which extends a full 16 measures and includes a nice modulation away from resolution halfway through (first heard with the words “hour finally came” at 0:25; it’s even more satisfying the second time, when Perry sings “and that’s the worst thing that you could do,” at 1:00). The rest has to do with the song’s overall framework: there are two distinct halves, and once we arrive at the second half, featuring an accumulating repetition of ensemble singing, we do not return to the first. The linear movement can heighten a sense of climax. All those voices singing together in real time don’t hurt either.
“Navy Parade”—which carries the parenthetical words “(Escape From the Black River Bluffs)”—is from the debut Ages and Ages album, Alright You Restless, which was released back in February on Knitting Factory Records. (Okay, so the album was sitting on my desk for a little while. Better late than never.) And while “Navy Parade” was not the first single from the album, it was in fact the first video. As often noted, I’m not a great video fan but this one I’m fond of, both for the storyline and for the authentic Portland imagery, with the splendid St. Johns Bridge serving as a backdrop for the song’s climactic second half.
This one carries the wacky, group-sing, neo-hippie vibe of the Polyphonic Spree but with the added benefit of really solid songwriting.
“Say Yes” unfolds with a jaunty, trumpet-led rhythm augmented by a loopy backing vocal that brings the Star Trek theme song to mind. In the indie world, lots of songs pretty much end there–quirky, big-ensemble intro, and that’s all we get. To its credit, “Say Yes” develops resoundingly beyond its minute-long intro, presenting us next with a verse featuring a non-repeating melody that stretches out for more than 40 seconds, incorporating 18 measures of music. That’s all but unheard of in a rock band, but then again, Afternoons are an idiosyncratic rock band at best, being a seven-piece ensemble that includes two drummers, a trumpet player, and a classically trained opera singer. Three of the seven players were in the L.A.-based band Irving, which has been put aside now that that band’s side projects have apparently overshadowed the main act (another Irving offshoot is Sea Wolf).
The chorus, by the way, is nicely thought out too, and an apt counterpart to the extended verse: simply the words “say yes,” architected into the bouncy trumpet refrain of the introduction. For something this big-hearted and loose-limbed, “Say Yes” is a pretty tight composition. It will eventually appear on Afternoons’ debut CD, which is recorded but seems to lack, thus far, a release date. The band has been selling EPs at shows in L.A. but that’s about it so far. MP3 courtesy of Irving’s web site. Thanks to Filter for the tip.