One of the very best post-Beatles guitar-pop albums of the last ten years is Cotton Mather’s Kon Tiki. It’s always an interesting trick to me, how to write clearly in an idiom without being a mere homage or flattened imitation – in that, of course, the original was original, and new to a degree, whereas the imitation is the opposite. Still, just because the parameters of a musical style have been established, does that mean all music createable within that style has been exhausted? For some reason that question gets asked more acutely when the style is older – as if, for instance, there’s a statute of limitations, and violators need to be sentenced to some sort of musical parole.
So for me, the reason Kon Tiki is successful isn’t because it sounds “just like” anyone’s favorite Beatlesongs circa 1966 (even though, well, it does kinda). It’s successful because the best songs here sound like brilliant songs that are best served by arrangements (and production, to an extent) that evoke Beatlesongs circa 1966. The fact that they weren’t actually written in 1966 shouldn’t be held against them. That’s 1966’s loss – it shouldn’t be ours.
When Kon Tiki was released, one reviewer (a very hip guy – at least for a 35-year-old) wrote that “the band also avoids the mistake, all too common among guitar pop bands, of assuming that the musical clock stopped immediately after the recording of Big Star’s Radio City. Some of Pavement’s offhand, clumsy grace, Guided by Voices’ gnomic fragments, and the Loud Family’s obscure sonic wit decorate moments of this disc; while your average guitar-pop band would [predictably] deliver a Beach Boys tribute with a song entitled ‘Church of Wilson,’ Cotton Mather brings an offering for the altar of Black Francis.” Another, subtler example: the steady eighths of the bassline in “Password” gives the track a bit more propulsiveness than a more typical vintage bass part might have done. On the other hand, the way the heavily compressed drums are squished into the right channel, later to be balanced by tambourine on the left, and of course the very McGuinn guitar lead, do pay tribute to another of Cotton Mather’s key influences. But would you have expected the sweet’n’sour strings near the end, or the bell-like percussion that complements that part? (Note: the track fades sooner than I’d like – in that if you listen closely, you’ll hear that the chord sequence subtly changes right near the end. Always something new to hear – even ten years on.)
“My Before and After” might be my favorite track on the CD, although I’m not entirely sure why that is. I do like the lower-register piano part on the chorus (see the bridge to “Radio Free Europe”), and the high vocal harmonies held way back in the mix.
After a couple more albums, good but to my ears not quite as successful as Kon Tiki, Cotton Mather faded away. Not much was heard for a while – until last year or so, main Matherite Robert Harrison resurfaced with a new band, called Future Clouds & Radar. As the name might suggest, this band is a little more wild and open than Cotton Mather (whose records, however excellently arranged, might have benefited from just a little more air). “Drugstore Bust,” the first track I heard from Future Clouds & Radar (three tracks are downloadable from the band’s website, linked above – the band’s double-disc debut is available for purchase via PayPal), begins in deconstruction mode, then gradually rebuilds its elements to become, by its end, a fairly straightforward pop song. But its beginnings don’t fade in memory, and it’s interesting to me that by now, it sounds like pop music, whereas the first time I heard it, I thought it was quite strange. Engagingly strange, but strange.
“This Is Really a Book” works a similar trick, in a way, built upon the world’s most slow and subdued reggae beat, but Harrison’s melodicism has the ability to shine in any setting. A word, too, about his lyrics, which manage to balance between obscure and intriguing without becoming precious – or, for that matter, very cogent – but cogency is overrated, particularly in pop songs, which are really about sounds and melody.
Finally, “Quicksilver” is spacier and more psychedelic, with that stoned backbeat and a wheedling orbital synth, but it’s grounded in a fine acoustic guitar rhythm track. This is the first time I heard this song, which was part of an enormous torrent the SXSW folks distributed featuring selections from bands appearing at this year’s annual Austin music bash.
Cotton Mather “Password” (Kon Tiki 1997)
Cotton Mather “My Before and After” (Kon Tiki 1997)
Future Clouds & Radar “Drugstore Bust” (Future Clouds & Radar 2007)
Future Clouds & Radar “This Is Really a Book” (Future Clouds & Radar 2007)
Future Clouds & Radar “Quicksilver” (Future Clouds & Radar 2007)