Cities is a good record from a good young band with loads of potential. It’s not brilliant, as some Triangle scene advocates hoped, but it’s not bad, as jealous detractors of the Chapel Hill band and its record deal hoped. It’s solid.
But what Cities lacks in apogean excellence it makes up for, by default, with local relevance: I doubt this will be the best record released in the Triangle this year, but it just may be the most important.
Of course, the natural response is “Why?” Why would a four-piece rock record coming through like an amalgam of Interpol atmosphere, Radiohead theme and Coldplay likeability be important?
And, in the national sphere, the answer is that it probably won’t be. At best, Cities will become an indie media buzz band, and they’ll be a top-billed act at 2006’s CMJ Music Marathon, the annual band-blowout that College Music Journal hosts in New York each fall. Then comes the onus of performing well in every American city for three months and turning around and making a record that matches critical expectations.
At worst, Cities will be a strong debut from a band of four Chapel Hill guys, all under 25. It will get some good press (it already has), some lackluster reviews (hasn’t happened yet), and they’ll do some short tours (still looking for the right booking agent). They’ll probably make another record, and maybe more will happen for them in round two.
But, in either event, Cities is important, first and foremost, because it–a record by four unknowns from a town that’s been largely dormant on the national music scene for years–was released, and, secondly, because it was released by Yep Roc Records.
At this point in local record label history, the outlook for the best of the local talent crop is grim, indeed: After years of releasing music by local bands, Merge Records has risen to a position of such national prominence that they now only sport one touring local band; Mammoth Records is gone; local upstarts that showed promise–Bifocal Media, Pidgeon English, Fractured Discs–have either backed off or are taking their time.
But Yep Roc is trying to step up to the plate, recognizing that there is an incredible wealth of talented people making worthy music in the Triangle, and that someone should be putting it out. They’ve enjoyed success with bluegrass ingénues Chatham County Line and have provided local supergroup Tres Chicas a platform from which to receive mass critical acclaim and a rising public star. Yep Roc put The Comas in a place to sign with the more demographically suited Vagrant Records, and Yep Roc has experience with the indie rock of the late Mayflies USA.Cities
(Yep Roc Records)
Like the best acts lazily branded mere post-punk revivalists, Chapel Hills Cities is an amalgamation of influences that doesnt really belong to any one era. Cities self-titled Yep Roc debut may recall the angular shards of early Echo & the Bunnymen, Pornography-era Cure and the pulsating drive of Joy Division, but, within its 10 cuts, youre just as likely to hear echoes of Rides shimmering melodies, My Bloody Valentines guitar squalls and Bends-era Radiohead.
Produced by Triangle fixture Brian Paulson (Slint, Superchunk, Wilco), Cities is best described as a mature, urgent and cinematic guitar record that belies these peach-fuzzed youngsters years. It may be a debut, but its too self-assured to sound like one.
A Theme is an appropriately titled disc-opener, providing the sonic template for much of what follows: Textured guitar riffs from Robbie Mackey and Josh Nowlan, Joey Ingrams insistent kick drum and cymbal crashes, thumping bass lines from Jeremy Paschall, and Nowlans yearning vocals. Coated with copious reverb, Cities sounds at times like it was recorded in Jim James grain silo.
Cities also makes effective use of the soft/loud contrasts of early Radiohead, particularly on Lakes, Lounge Act and Barricades & Garrisons. But the wash of textured, shoe-gaze-y guitar layersthink Swervedrivers Adam Franklin and Jimmy Hartridgekeeps those comparisons at arms length. This turns out to be key: When Nowlan slips into a spot-on Thom Yorke falsetto and chants dystopian, Yorke-ian lines like Beware, the end is near during Barricades & Garrisons, those guitars prevent Cities from sounding like tepid British Radiohead impersonators like Travis or Coldplay.
The discs best songsCapitol, OOC and Writing on the Wallbristle with pent-up tension, shimmering verses careening toward elegiac choruses that then wash blissfully over the listener. Like sheets of sound, the music is so dense you can practically feel it.
Cities isnt a perfect record. By the last third, the lack of dynamic shifts may leave some listeners wondering if the disc hasnt doubled back on itself. But the band was savvy enough to keep nine of the 10 cuts at three-and-a-half minutes or under, and the whole record clocks in at a brisk half-hour.
And, as for those musical Grandpa Simpsons wandering through rocks hallowed halls on nostalgia benders yammering about how they did it better in the old days, Cities is proof theyre doing it pretty damn well these days, too. John Schacht
Cities plays Local 506 for its CD release show on Friday, April 28 at 9 p.m. with Fin Fang Foom, Heads Down Thumbs Up and Idea of Beauty. Tickets are $6.
But Cities is a true debut from true unknowns. If Cities is the right band, Yep Roc, locally, is the right label. They’re relatively new, growing and extremely energetic. Owners Glenn Dicker and Tor Hansen also own Redeye Distribution, the end of their enterprise that now has the ability to get products from dozens of different labels inside stores ranging from big-box chains like Borders and Best Buy down to independent, mom-and-pop strongholds like Schoolkids and Plan 9. Putting Cities inside stores isn’t a problem, and Yep Roc now sports enough name recognition that the music press will be compelled to at least hear the band.
In a conversation I had with Dicker and Hansen last November, Dicker outlined the labels approach for Cities: “The idea was, let’s take a really patient approach with this band, and let them develop on their own. We’ll provide the support and let them get their feet wet.”
Once again, the worst- and best-case scenarios for Cities the band both translate into wins, but this time it’s for the local music scene. If, as Yep Roc’s grand local indie rock experiment, it fails and Cities doesn’t create an adequate splash, Hansen and Dicker will have learned enough to try again with more bands. If Cities explodes, Yep Roc–as well as outside labels and even other local indie labels, like Merge–may take notice of the Triangle’s ample stock of other fine bands. Who knows?
It’s been well memorialized that Chapel Hill was seen as the next Seattle in the early ’90s. A number of fine bands emerged from the area, but the burdens of that expectation were too much. Now, there are no expectations, but there are–as in that previous period–a number of strong bands making profound music independently. We’ll see.