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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum
Head of Femur
Great Plains

Rating: 6/10 ?

April 9, 2008
The band Head of Femur has circulated in my sphere for some time now, at least in name, but Great Plains is my first real exposure to the music they create. I had already learned beforehand of their approach to music as a collective, and of their penchant for working with as much outside help as they can find. Though the band's core is a quartet, the list of artists contributing to Great Plains is lengthy. Seems to me these guys figure bigger is better, but as the ages-old adage goes, such is not always the case.

Their sound has been described as "baroque pop," and you can definitely here the echoes of a distinctly contemporary style (or something complimentary to such a style) in the music Head of Femur create. That said, the group's emphasis leans much more toward the Pop side of the baroque pop equation. This album, the band's third full-length, employs a lot of piano and brass, but not so many strings as to summon any Baroque dramatics. It could very well be that one of the hired guns contributing to the album is a genius on the cello, but a symphonic impression is not something you walk away with after hearing Great Plains. More train conductor than orchestra conductor, if anything one can hear a working class Americana influence on the band's otherwise less than memorable indie-pop.

Even beyond the fact that the band originated in Nebraska, I can see why Head of Femur would appeal to fans of the Saddle-Creek crowd. Band leaders Mike Elsener and Matt Focht attempt their fair share of desperate and aching lyrics ("I felt the wind today/ it's not so hot like yesterday/ There's so much space in this crowded fucking town") and they back them up with both up-tempo pop melodies and pseudo dramatic piano riffs. But more than those heady intonations it is the upright piano keys, and the Cowboy Bar feel they impart upon the songs, that dissipates any dramatic effect the vocals might create. For as big and complex as Head of Femur try to make the music sound, more often than not Great Plains comes across as being a little too simple.

Simplicity, needless to say, is not a hallmark of good baroque pop. At its best the genre challenges the listener and amplifies emotional reactions with melodies and strings (see Sufjan Stevens, Rufus Wainwright, Arcade Fire). After the waves of everything from freak-folk to glitch-pop that have washed over indie music in recent years, Great Plains doesn't feel all that challenging, or stringy for that matter. "By the Red Fire," as with the majority of songs on the album, features an unnoticeable use of orchestral instruments, though the most beautiful song in the collection, "Covered Wagons," uses them perfectly (when the lyrics aren't getting in the way). In the opposite direction, there are other times when the battalions of contributing artists are all doing whatever it is they do to muck up a song and doing it in unison, almost completely ruining an otherwise strong track like "River Ramble."

In rock and roll, some lyrics are worth multiple readings while others are anything but. There are some songwriters, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists for example, who go out of their way to lyrically create a beautiful and vivid world, in which the characters of their songs live. Head of Femur go the other direction ("Rheumatoid vulgarities?") and by comparison rely on lyrics reminiscent of a high school AP English student doing his best to impress the college admissions board. Of the thirteen tracks on the album, three songs have the word "fire" in the title.

Though out of context it conjures up all kinds of possibilities, in Head of Femur's case the phrase "willfully weird orchestral pop" equates to nine hundred people striving to sound intellectual. They use pianos and trumpets with their bass, drums, and guitars, and making sense is not a lyrical requirement. Such Liberal Arts tactics can be employed successfully (Broken Social Scene, The Polyphonic Spree), but it is a tough balancing act. On Great Plains the indie rock journeymen in Head of Femur come up short, but I have a feeling that things might work out if they keep trying.

Reviewed by Bob Ladewig
Having been introduced to good music by his sister in the early years, Bob Ladewig has been searching out all the best in indie music ever since. He also rides a skateboard and performs/directs comedy shows and, like all great men, he\'s afraid of really growing up.

See other reviews by Bob Ladewig



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