Absentee | Victory Shorts (Memphis Industries)

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cd_absentee.jpgIt's always amazing to discover another group you've never heard before, and to once again experience that feeling of surprise and wonderment over something fresh and new.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It's always amazing to discover another group you've never heard before, and to once again experience that feeling of surprise and wonderment over something fresh and new. Absentee had escaped my notice previously, despite having several releases out, but I won't ignore them anymore...not after their stunning new album, Victory Shorts. The British band, working in a sort of gauzy, country-tinged indie rock style, have followed a recipe here that adds up to one delicious platter of music. The chief ingredient is lead singer/songwriter Dan Michaelson's very low-pitched, often sleepy voice—which often sounds like he's trying to work off the numerous rounds of whiskey he imbibed the night before. Although it's not the kind of voice I'm generally drawn to, Michaelson is so nuanced, so thoughtful in his delivery, that there's real power and poignancy to almost everything he sings.

The next key ingredient is the soft female voice of Melinda Bronstein, who mostly sings background vocals or joins on the choruses -- but she's so different in tone from Michaelson that it makes for a rich and tasty vocal concoction. Add superlative, unusually restrained guitar playing by Michaelson and fellow guitarist Babak Ganjei and the terrific drumming of Che Albrighton, and the ingredients are all there for a winner.

Now all that's needed is some great, catchy songs—and that's where Absentee seals the deal here. When taking notes for a review, I often add a little star next to a song I think is particularly good. And of the ten songs on this album, I put stars by seven of them. Not bad for a band I'd never heard before! The disc has several rousing, upbeat rockers such as "Boy, Did She Teach You Nothing?" and the catchy "Pips," but I'm especially drawn to the mid-tempo or more elegantly arranged numbers which dominate. These include the luminous, jaunty little tune "The Nurses Don't Notice a Thing," the stellar "They Do It These Days" (a real gem of arranging smarts with  piano, crisp guitar and unexpected horns contributing equally—if I were teaching a course on musical arrangements, this track could be Exhibit A), and probably my personal favorite, "We Smash Plates." I can't say enough about the beauty and sublime construction of this tune. With both acoustic and electric guitars spinning magic like they themselves were in love, a deeply moving vocal by Michaelson and some beguiling background singing by Bronstein, this track achieves genuine transcendence. There's a curious little sequence of notes one of the guitars plays on the song that is unlike anything I've ever heard: it's pure, flowing beauty, and without a doubt, this song would go on my mix tape of the "Best of 2008."

But there's still more—the rockin' track "Bitchstealer" approaches U2 territory with its guitars and overall "edge," but the high point of the song is the repeated refrain of "No I don't wanna lose you" which the two vocalists sing together - then, unexpectedly, Michaelson keeps singing it while Bronstein goes on to sing a very different verse. It's just fantastic. The wistful "Spitting Feathers" is also a highlight, with surprises in the arrangement that include Bronstein's chiming keyboard work in the first half, and a shift uptempo in the second half that includes some raw but controlled guitar and a multi-voiced chorus that's truly divine.

So to summarize: This is a smart, thoughtful and musically brilliant disc that is probably one of the best of the year. Victory Shorts is a good name for it; most of the songs are only around three minutes in length, but virtually every one of them emerges victorious thanks to the attention and love given them by this talented bunch of Londoners. A | Kevin Renick

RIYL: Tindersticks, Pavement, Smog

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