Outside of Bickett Gallery after Ticonderoga’s second show ever last March, Drew Robertson of Phon made a telling observation of the new band from Iowa City: “If Mark, Phil and Wes play more and if they get some confidence, they’ll be incredible.”
On the surface, it seems that Ticonderoga has that confidence now. They’ve inked a record deal, played a slew of shows and last week released an eponymous debut. Ticonderoga’s magic, though, is its strange ability to sound utterly unconfident. Mark Paulson, Phil Moore and Wes Phillips, it seems, have mastered the art of writing, practicing and recording any given track multiple times–literally, into perfection–while maintaining the authenticity of the uncertainty, despair and/or consternation that initially prompted the song. With Ticonderoga, very little is lost in translation.
“I traced my steps, found a trail of blood / I had shot myself in the head, and couldn’t think straight for months,” sings Moore, shaking over an M. Ward-like acoustic guitar. Moore–who alternately shares drum, guitar, bass and keyboard duties with Phillips and Paulson–isn’t alone in this “inherited sadness.” All three harness it, highlighting every song’s turmoil with surrealistic images painted in vocal grays.
The vocal faultlines are in stark opposition with the seamless music, patterned in arrangements on a level with that of Chicago art bands formed by guys with names like McEntire, Grubbs and O’Rourke.
Strings cut through “Kim & Kelly,” a despondent, aggrandized slowcore march pinning Moore’s voice–more sheepish than ever–against chiming guitars and ricochet drums. Phillips’ bass solo nearly subverts the impossible by making “fusion influence” tasteful.
That song’s slow-burn rise illustrates a central tenet of Ticonderoga’s anti-formula: Dynamics can explode, but they can tease, too. The plod of “Drunkmare” only finds release a track later in “Arrowhead,” a song that roars out of the gates as Phillips pronounces: “Assembling a sound buried way beneath the ground!” Moments later, it falls away into a simmering, broken beat reflecting Tortoise at their most challenging. It’s a collapse that’s not resolved until “High Score,” a closer that uses video games as analogies and a Spanish tilt as fuel in rendering one of the most compelling and conclusive parting shots in memory.
In a three-week period that has seen the release of at least half a dozen breakthrough records in the Triangle alone, this dexterous, discursive debut hovers near the top of my list.
Ticonderoga plays Friday, March 11 at Kings.