Monday, March 9, 2009

A Pair of Past-Related Reviews; Part 2; Action and the Red Baron

In my last post, I had said that I planned to review Cameron Audet’s new record, and then Jason Hebert’s record with “Action and the Red Baron.” I am, however, going to switch the order, and review the Action record today, and presumably tackle the Audet record next, as information-gathering for one entry has taken a bit longer than the other.




Action and the Red Baron is a collaboration between Jason Hebert (“The Red Baron”- vocals, guitar, tambourine, shaker) and Dan Custer (“Action Dan”- piano, bass, turntables, beatbox, programming). As I said before, Jason has previously played with and fronted several bands, including Rusted Tricycle and Theory of Regret. Action Dan produces quite good electronic music under his own name. They recently released a record called “A Dream Awakening,” which is available through CDBaby, iTunes, and Amazon.com.

It seems a requisite part of an indie-rock singer’s recording catalog at this juncture to team up with an electronics-guru at some point, to release a record of vaguely dancy/ vaguely atmospheric emotional techno tracks to cater to the rock-throwback song-structure-and-melody whims of the current electro-hipster crowd. While I have to admit a certain taste-based bias in favor of this format, I also have some critical reservations about the proficiency with which it is often executed, as with most flavor-of-the-minute recording whims that force us to call the motives of its perpetrators into question a bit. Although “A Dream Awakening,” in principle, fulfills many of these qualities, it proves to be a more concisely constructed, and at the same time more diverse, record than many other such experiments.

Throughout the record, one of the easiest things to note is how startlingly crisp the overall production is. I am amazed by how effortlessly the variety of sound-scapes used spin in, out, and around each other. The sonic depth of these songs is immense and cavernous, and the beats are well-varied, atmospheric, and unusually well-suited to the emotional contents of the songwriting.

Jason’s voice opens the track “Still Standing” in a solo tone that is organic enough for the emotional style of the delivery, yet appropriately processed enough to fit with the electronic format of the project (a balancing-act of production rarely achieved in electro-crossover projects). “I was standing at the top of the world when the news came in.” The melody sounds optimistic and downright poppy, until the beats kick in dramatically on the word “in,” proving immediately that Action’s instrumentation is not merely presented as backing-tracks for Jason’s voice, but as integral aspects of the way that the duo intends to convey the overall statement of the song, a theme that is evident throughout the record, and one of the elements that makes the album shine. As the “news” comes in, the mood is shifted on a dime from upbeat to darkly introspective. Even when a guitar part breaks into the mix that by itself sounds downright doom-esque and like it shouldn’t really work, because of the overall tonal coherency of the track, for one reason or another, it definitely does. Some of the vocal-breaks and refrain-repetitions verge closer to Chester Bennington terrain than I ever thought that I would hear Jason doing, but these work surprisingly well, even to those of us who aren’t exactly in Linkin Park’s stylistic demographic.

On the track “Talking Distant Variable,” Jason lets Action Dan take the foreground. With reverb-drenched piano-lines and textural beat-crescendos, there’s definitely a bit of an Air/ Thievery Corporation down tempo vibe going on. Things get a tad muddy when the vocals try to force harder-edged choruses from the depths of the over-arching chill-out-session, with the sudden addition of guitars that are well executed, but a bit over-played and over-stated in the mix.

Like most indie/electronic projects, this record is not lacking for a couple of dancier groove-based moments. The most thoroughly funky track, and the outfit’s most complete foray into indie-dance-electro, is “The Night is Alive,” which is driven by an infectious bass hook and googly-synth modulation, and features a refreshing tenderness that is not often tapped in this format. It reminds me a bit of something in between a more-organic Postal Service and a more-upbeat One AM Radio, with a melody hook that calls to mind the Folk Implosion’s “Natural One.”

“I Am Gone” sounds utterly lush and emotionally rich, in an extremely cinematic way, featuring string-pads that interplay well with piano tinkling and vocal harmonies adeptly manipulated to fade in and out of the bright, breezy (yet lonely) fields of orchestration. This is the track on which I can hear the most evident footprints of Portishead, the band that Action Dan cites first in his list of influences (a reference that I’m personally pleased with, as anyone who recalls related past reviews and fan-geekery I’ve posted may recall).

The record runs the mood-scape gamut. “Phase and Cancelled” features trippy sonic experimentation, and elements of Pink Floyd, Atari Teenage Riot, Collide, Ladytron, and Metropolis Records fodder all come to mind at various moments in the track. On the other end of the spectrum, “In the Distance“, begins with Jason playing a sentimental acoustic song over washes of nature-sounds, building into a solid groove with more of the lush orchestration and soothing vocal textures that these guys do so well, with a bit of a Death Cab For Cutie vibe.

Overall, I can see any of these songs working extremely well on a vast stylistic variety of film soundtracks, and in this regard the record reminds me a bit of Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine.” If for no other reason (as I can’t claim that it sounds terribly similar or bears the same sort of aesthetic) but that the songs off of that record fit in just as appropriately within the myriad of different sorts of films that employed them. As the cinematic nature of its overall sound would require, this record’s moody diversity manages to transcends the somewhat overplayed format that it otherwise might be perceived to fall within. “A Dream Awakening” reminds us of the original purpose of this collaborative trend; if indie-musicians and electro-wizards are doing really interesting things on their own, why wouldn’t a combination of the two prove interesting? On this record, it definitely does.

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