by Paul Silver
EAT GUITARS –
Why There Are Mountains
Well, it’s finally (almost) here! Ever
since I was visiting New York City on business
last March and our fearless editor, Jim Testa,
dragged me out to see this new band he’s
been championing, I’ve been awaiting
this CD. After some fits and starts and a
change of producer, the master mix appeared
in my mailbox. It’s been a long, frustrating
wait, but well worth it. Overall, it’s
an excellent listen, and gets my highest recommendation.
Let’s delve into it, a bit, shall we?
First, for those not familiar with the band,
Cymbals Eat Guitars is an indie-band from
New York City that features an incredible
density of sound and phenomenal command of
dynamic control. When I saw their live show,
I mentioned to Jim that it sometimes sounds
like they’re playing multiple songs
at the same time, but it works. They can go
from a quiet whisper to a cacophonous explosion
in an instant. They layer sound on sound on
sound, with keyboards, guitars, bass and drums,
and the result is so complex without sounding
overblown. And on their first studio effort,
they toss in horns and strings to the mix,
and it fits perfectly.
OK, now a comparison to the previous recordings
and the new ones. There were three tracks
well distributed on the Internet via mp3,
“…And the Hazy Sea,” “Share,”
and “The Living North.” Hazy Sea
opens the new album, and at first, I was a
little disappointed. I liked the previous
recording, produced by Charles of the Wrens,
somewhat better. It was just as dense and
dynamic, a trademark sound of Cymbals Eat
Guitars. But the new recording seemed to have
a little more wanking around on it, particularly
near the end of the track. There’s needless
soloing and grandstanding, noises posing as
artful hooks that don’t go anywhere.
It’s still a good track, but I just
like the other one much better.
The other two tracks were a relief; the new
recordings work better than the old ones.
“Share” was good before, but this
new recording just blows me away. The opening
is downright eerie, and the sadness is palpable.
The tempo is slowed a bit, giving it more
of a dirge-like mournfulness. The drone of
the guitars adds to the atmosphere, and especially
raising the level of the chanting vocals at
the beginning sends chills down my spine.
Just past the halfway mark, the mood starts
to shift a little bit, with the introduction
of horns, and the sadness, although still
there, starts to fade. Finally, in the last
two minutes of the track, everything changes
again. The tempo quickens, the jangly guitars
and keyboards lift the spirits. It’s
as though we’ve just finally come through
the grieving process. But, as with all grief,
and as the final moments of the song reveal,
there’s always the memory of the sadness
that never goes away. Wow – none of
this came through in the original session
of this track. This is much better.
And “The Living North” is a more
straight-ahead pop song. When the first recording
of this was sent to me, I commented to singer/song-writer
Joseph D’Agostino that, while nice,
it just seemed too simple and clean in comparison
to their other stuff. I don’t know if
he took those comments to heart or just knew
it already anyway, but this new version of
the song works much better. It’s got
a little more texture to the arrangement and
is a little rougher and harder edged, without
losing its pop sensibility.
OK, what about the rest of the album? There
are nine tracks on the disc, so let’s
examine the other six.
“Some Trees” was probably the
first track that got me thinking about an
odd comparison: Bobby Conn. Not that the music
sounds the same, but the way the tempo shifts
around and the way Joe sings this one, with
kind f a swagger in his voice at times, reminded
me a lot of Conn. This one is a pretty up-tempo
track for the most part (though it starts
off slowly, with wah-wahing guitar, a la Angelo
Badalamenti). It sounds like it could have
come from a rock opera, too, another trait
it shares in common with a lot of the stuff
“Indiana” starts out sounding
like something you might hear from Spiritualized,
for the first minute of the song, with cosmic
sounds and quiet, yet soaring vocals. Then
it suddenly shifts into a mid-tempo tune with
an old-fashioned honky-tonk piano sound. Then
it shifts again, blending the two sounds together.
And then the horns come in, just adding to
the whole effect.
“Cold Spring” continues the tradition
of a single track packing in multiple styles
and huge dynamic ranges. It starts out slowly
and quietly, with keyboards, tinkling guitars,
and Joe’s breathy, easy vocals. The
rest of the band comes in to fill in the arrangement,
and then the strings – yes, the strings,
come in, and it’s just beautiful. More
echoing guitars in the background provide
more Spiritualized-like atmosphere. And just
when you know how this song will evolve, at
around the two and a half minute mark, it
shifts. Well, we should have come to expect
that by now. The sound thickens and the tempo
increases. And then it shifts again. And again.
And yet again. Quiet, loud, spacey, rocking,
all together. And it’s all very melodic
and harmonious; nothing ever sounds out of
“What Dogs See” has a spacey,
dreamy quality is there throughout this track,
and it doesn’t seem to shift like the
others. It does have a distinct dream-like
quality to it, very ethereal, very unreal.
“Wind Phoenix” is another shifter,
going between a breezy pop tune and aharper-edged
rock tune, but with some of those qualities
of coming from an indie-rock opera. Vibraphone
gives it kind of a jazzy feel in places, too.
The album closer, “Like Blood Does,”
starts out nice and quiet and calm, like an
indie version of a torch song, something you
might hear from the classic chanteuses of
yore. And then. Oh, and then. At two and three
quarter minutes in, the guitars start playing
arpeggios with a spangle, and the drums start
to pound in with a lo-fi menace. And, yes,
more shift. Indie-pop takes over as the instrumentation
fills in, and then the keyboards provide a
spacey atmosphere again. The layering is incredible.
It builds some more and turns from indie-pop
to indie-rock. And it builds even more. A
little more than two minutes before the end
of the track, the guitars and keyboards explode
in a cacophony of sound. And then it’s
suddenly gone, and we’re back to the
beginning, a quiet song, with just acoustic
guitar and the plaintive vocals of Joe D’Agostino.
The final moment is a discordant pound on
the piano, and with that, the album is over.
It’s amazing that such incredible songs
and arrangements could come from someone so
young. Joe is a college student in New York.
And while I’m sure his older, more experienced
band mates contribute quite a bit, they would
probably be the first to say that Cymbals
Eat Guitars is Joe’s show. And not only
is he a talented songwriter, his vocals are
tremendous. He has an impossible range that’s
just incredible, yet he makes it seem so easy,
like he’s just singing to himself with
a guitar in his bedroom.
I feel very privileged to have been able
to see Cymbals Eat Guitars live, and I sure
hope to get to see them again (maybe they’ll
tour someday and make it out to the west coast?).
And I am honored to have been able to get
this advanced listen to the new album. OK,
Jersey Beat readers, here’s your due
warning. Watch for this album. I don’t
know exactly when it will be released and
hit the streets, but watch for it. And buy
it as soon as you can. If you’re ever
in the NYC area, check show listings to see
if Cymbals Eat Guitars are playing. Better
yet, check the show listings ahead of time
and plan your trip to coincide with a live
gig. You’ll thank me for it.
You can catch Cymbals Eat Guitars...
January 23 - 10:30pm at Vanishing Point, Brooklyn
January 28 - 10:00pm at Fontana's, New York,