Friday, August 8, 2008

Head of Femur - Great Plains

Download: Head of Femur - "Jetway Junior"
Download: Head of Femur - "Isn't It A Shame?"

Note: This Post Contains Previously Published Content

Orch-pop, for those who may not know (though the people who do not will dwindle each time another superb record from Chicago’s scene emerges), is a sub-genre of indie music in which the group in question makes eminently tuneful pop music with orchestral embellishments such as violins, woodwinds, or even brass, in addition to the good ole’ fashioned guitar, bass, and drums (and, maybe, keyboards). Of all the acts in Chicago's very own orch-pop scene (including terrific acts like The 1900s and Scotland Yard Gospel Choir), Head of Femur have not only been around the longest amount of time, but have the largest amount of recorded output. Their third LP, Great Plains, was released earlier this year. If there’s any justice in this musical universe, then you’d can expect Great Plains to show up on many people’s lists of 2008 albums which have been unjustly overlooked, at least by blogosphere standards. (Pitchfork rewarded Great Plains with a solid 7.3).

Consisting of one of the year’s most flawlessly executed sequence of songs, Great Plains is an album whose brand of baroque orch-pop flourishes to perfection. The group makes effortlessly melodic music that is simultaneously contemporary and timeless. While there are many orch-pop touchstones, listeners should be able to piece together a nerd-pop influence here (the quirky-catchy Pavement/They Might Be Giants amalgam of “Where’s The Fire?”), a Beach Boys influence there (check out the sighing, wistful harmonies of album opener “Whirlaway”), and the sunny, kaleidoscopic pop of such classic influences as the contemplative balladry The Beatles (“By The Red Fire”) and modern ones like the boyishly effervescent pop of Apples In Stereo (“Jetway Junior”).

It would be natural to assume that, because of the shock-and-awe name-bombing campaign I’ve inadvertently waged in the previous paragraph, Head of Femur are mere sonic impressionists and that listening to Great Plains is just an ostentatious game of spot-the-influence. (Is now a bad time to mention that the singer Matt Focht sounds a whole hell of a lot like Elliot Smith?). But while its first two proper songs (after the Beach-Boys lilt of “Whirlaway”) ultimately distract the listener with unnecessary anxiety and business, once the steady guitar-and-snare-driven strut of “Jetway Junior” arrives, Great Plains begins an utterly remarkable stretch of fantastic songs, each one arriving with a greater sense of relaxed confidence than the next. “Jetway Junior”, “Where’s The Fire?”, album closer “Isn’t It A Shame?”, and “Covered Wagons”, which is the album’s centerpiece (and a more subdued version of Arcade Fire’s “Intervention)— are prime examples of what happens when a veteran, or even just an established, group of songwriters, or musicians, grow comfortable, but not complacent, with one another: They focus on, and complement, each other’s strengths and, as a result, are able to churn out one great piece of work after the next. After a bit of an awkward stumble, Head of Femur stridently regain their footing and deliver one of the year’s best records. Great Plains is simply…well, you’ve gotten the picture.

Read a longer version of this review over at Stereo Subversion

Head of Femur MySpace Page

(Jonathan Graef)

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