REVIEW: Atari Star: And Other Smaller, Brighter Worlds
The Atari Star: And Other Smaller, Brighter Worlds [Johann's Face Records, 2002]
Two words? Die, Sevillesdote!
Instrumentation can make or kill a band. While for Godspeed You Black Emperor! or the Wild Colonials it's the aural variety that makes the music so wonderful, in the Atari Star we find exactly the reverse problem: the instrumentation ruins the album, transforms it from tight, well-written pop to insipid, shoot-me-in-the-head noodling. The culprit? Keyboards. Or, more specifically, an individual named "Sevillesdote". While Marc Ruvolo's idiosyncratic vocals have an entertaining, Deathray cadence, and Rob Vester and Davey Houle play bass and drums with likable verve, Sevillesdote (is it Mr. Sevillesdote? Mrs. Sevillesdote? Just plain Sevillesdote? Oh, the humanity!) insists on injecting dated eighties synths into almost every track, from squeaky-space-sounds on "The Hidden Measure" to cheesy organ-effects and Radio Shack-style 'tubular bells' on "Apologies in Advance". Even when you would think the keyboard thing would work out - when the Roland is set to 'piano', for instance - the piano sounds are echo-laden and atrocious, recalling not Ben Folds, but Will Ferrell's adult contemporary pianist Marty Culp on Saturday Night Live. The Atari Star has assembled what may well be eleven sterling pop songs, but every time I begin to dig one of the tunes (say the Dealership-styled "Black Licorice and Gasoline Fumes"), in comes Sevillesdote, replacing any trace of groove with grimace-inducing key-tinkling. Just as a loathsome keyboardist ruined some of the Dave Matthews Band's finest songs on Listener Supported, here the keyboards preclude my appreciation of The Atari Star's tunes, straight from the start.
I'll be fair: Sevillesdote does have redeeming value. Not on the keyboard, however - no fucking way. No, what's good here are his backing vocals; the Atari Star makes great, understated use of vocal harmonies, enriching the soaring chorus of "Apologies in Advance" or the earnest, quite lovely "Hands Accidentally Touch". If only Sevillesdote didn't go on to utterly ruin these tunes. I imagine it's sort of awkward for the band - maybe they think the keyboard stuff gives the disc a mature, prog feel, or as the press info suggests, "builds on the spacious elegance of the trio". But I'll be honest with you, boys: The Atari Star has great songs - the power-pop melodies consistently toe-tapping, the lyrics insightful but not pretentious - but you need to fire the piano player. I'm begging you; I don't care if you're friends; bite the bullet and light the guy on fire or something. And Other Smaller, Brighter Worlds has the infectious charm of Promise Ring, the strong vocal arrangements of Creeper Lagoon, the likable geeky intelligence of Weezer or the Weakerthans. What they also have is a serious case of the vomituous, band-wrecking member, and as soon as you get the hell rid of him, re-record the disc, send it my way, you can expect a glowing review.