It's always a dicey proposition, sending a high-profile indie compilation from Town X to a reviewer who also happens to live in Town X. Regardless of that reviewer's relationship with the bands included, the ensuing review is not likely to be 100 percent objective; then again, what review is? That said, the folks behind the two-disc Advanced Calculus: A Compilation of Music Recorded Live at WRCT 88.3 FM Pittsburgh
needn't worry too much; not only do I not know any of the bands personally, but I never even took calculus.
WRCT is the radio station at Carnegie Mellon University (or CMU), one of the last bastions of freeform radio in the United States. Combine that credential with the school's reputation as one of the country's most exclusive braintrusts and you can see where a sense of disproportionate smugness might creep into the proceedings. Thankfully, the producers of Advanced Calculus saved the album from falling prey to its own hipper-than-thou tendencies, instead balancing it somewhere between indie pride and self-effacing humor. The result is a snapshot of the current Pittsburgh music scene that I, as a mildly partisan listener, can recommend honestly without being completely blind to its flaws.
Advanced Calculus wears its CMU pedigree on its sleeve, bearing all the trademarks you might expect from a "geek university" radio station -- lots of discordant, mathy rock (Blunderbuss, IO, Creta Bourzia, Cattletrap and Mihaly are the best of the bunch), experi-punk (The (Alpha) Control Group (C), Modey Lemon, Pay Toilets and Microwaves), snarkily self-aware humor (Weird Paul's "Human Eye", on which he promises to buy his lover a new eye, and featuring the immortal line, "Got my checkbook in my pocket / I'm gonna fill your empty socket"), token showings of urban music (Beam, Strict Flow) and no sign of a woman anywhere, except as a backup singer. It's intimate and modular, and well-produced for a college in-studio album (or any live album, for that matter). The discs sound cozy without losing their details, which benefits the primarily instrumental offerings from The New Alcindors, Zombi and Young Steele Matula Trio. Similarly, Black Moth Super Rainbow's "Letter People Show" is moody and atmospheric, drawn from eerily smooth samples and smoky vocals, and Stict Flow's "UR Not Ready" is a clever, punchy chest-beater that could hold its own against anything from the Dilated Peoples.
With this much uptight white guy angst on display, there are bound to be some casualties. The bands involved tend to take themselves way too seriously to actually cut loose, and even their inspired moments sound somehow premeditated. The disc's title smacks of a "more-cerebral-than-thou" tone -- a separation of the men from the boys -- or else it's a defense mechanism, alerting the general public to the inherent brainpower behind the album as a nerd badge of courage. Regardless, whatever these bands lose to their constraints is made up for by their amazing ability to recreate complex compositions and bombastic soundscapes live, without a net. In that regard, you most certainly win some and lose some.
Despite a somewhat unbalanced representation of the musical genres available in Pittsburgh (heavy on the art rock and punk, light on everything else -- which matches WRCT's target audience), the choice of artists is commendable, both for the groups that were included and the groups that were passed over. While there are no mainstream headliners to pollute the indie proceedings, the absence of a few local acts surprises me (Barrett Black Band, where art thou?). Perhaps WRCT are leaving the door open for a follow-up compilation. Judging from the quality (and quantity) of the bands on display here, I think it's safe to say the Pittsburgh scene will require another document of its evolving music scene in a year or two. For now, as a representation of both the local Pittsburgh scene and the state of CMU's dedication to freeform radio, Advanced Calculus is something to be proud of.