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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
The Robot Ate Me
On Vacation
Swin Slowly / 5RC

Rating: 9/10 ?

March 23, 2005
Whether walking through the World of Toys known as FAO Schwarz or having flashbacks of "It's a Small World" at Disney, there is something very surreal about stepping into a child's place with a heightened, noticeably adult perspective. There's ways to read into all of these things that were never intended, and at times, the childlike can give you the chills.

It is in that delightfully sick spirit that I bid you a fond welcome to Ryland Bouchard's world, where the childish and the political meet in waves of vertigo-inducing, uneasy pop.

This two-disc set features tracks with such fantastically pointed names as "I Slept through the Holocaust," "Jesus and Hitler," "Every Nazi Plane Has a Cross" and "The Republican Army." And, if the names don't hit you, the music surely will. Taking an approach somewhat similar to Andrew Bird's work on last year's landmark Weather Systems, Ryland revels in eerie-yet-comforting, carnivalesque tones. He uses a brand of stark, haunted minimalism that is, in part, nostalgic, and in other ways, completely frightening.

Take, for example, the opening track, "The Genocide Ball." It begins as a grand distortion - a hall of mirrors with multiple, smiling faces - and shows itself to be a nasal little Victrola number, made as a simple invitation to two-step. It starts innocently enough, delving into a time when evils were met with great naiveté, but despite wide eyes there is something amiss.

That something presents itself post-haste in the second track, "Jesus and Hitler." Its rumbling, thumping battle drums, erratic rhythms and spooky, random noises paint an entirely different picture. Yet, just as if watching an old time horror film, there is something so precious about its age. In the modern age, we may still find a brief scare here and there, but we've moved on to an age where cinema, if not reality, has moved far beyond a caught gasp.

That little "boo" onscreen? Even if I jumped, it's just cute.

But as the first disc of On Vacation progresses, we traipse through the dirt covered, sepia toned era with cautious steps; the threats have undoubtedly become more serious. Clanking percussion, nauseous noise, morbid marches, staccato steps and growing paranoia build with each track. The childlike, toy instruments take on another meaning as the disc, quite terrifyingly, reaches its icy fingers around your soul.

The dizzying propaganda number, "The Republican Army" urges you to "join the Christian brigade," in a cultish insistence that is larger than life. The tinny, dripping sounds and eerie unease of "I Slept through the Holocaust" cannot be calmed, despite Ryland's slyly inviting vocals.

The track "Crispy Christian Tea Time" was the first I'd heard of The Robot Ate Me, and remains my favorite. It is the one that drew me in to begin with, what with its cheery Mr. Rogers styled piano tinkering, its mentions of Lego sets, disbelievers burning in hell, and the encroaching madness. As you might guess, it takes on an even stranger tone in the context of the album, which builds in both conviction and insanity as it goes on, and his intelligence at pitting innocent sounds and words with darkening moods grows more apparent.

The dense, medicated fog of the title track closes the first disc and begins the next. It is the perfect segway, as its venture into dream pop is, by all counts, more nightmarish than anything. Alternately warm and freezing, gauzy instrumental strains are met with staid, trapped vocals where the worst is an inevitability. By the end of disc one, we worry for our own safety. It is spooky, edgy, uncomfortable and brimming with heart. On its own, it is an ambitious, rooted and complex pop album with perfectly short tracks - the longest of disc one is still under four minutes - and in the blink of an eye, we know something strange has gone on.

Disc two inverts the ratio of its lead-in - whereas warmth was basically an afterthought as cheery instruments left you at your wits end, the second disc thrives on fuzzy feelings and sweet intentions. A second "On Vacation" is absolutely different - you may not have returned from the first one, and you don't want to return from the second - it is an inviting tale of tanning lotion and lazy, beachside days. It captures the optimism so cleverly hidden within the tracks of the first discs and makes it plain to see; the contrast is brilliant, allowing both discs to fully shine.

Again, the song titles are quite telling: "Apricot Tea" and "I'm OK" turn things around with a most natural sort of sugar. Pining, like Charlie Brown for "The Red-Haired Girl" on one track, his odes come off like that unsung hero, if he were ever enlightened by the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel.

Beautiful harmonies, affirming Ryland's love of Pet Sounds, filter throughout the second disc and make beautifully perpendicular lines to the Appalachian, stinging pangs of the first act. Separately, they are dual works of art at opposite ends of the spectrum, but together they make a powerful statement of versatility and movement.

Indeed, this set will affect you. It will make you feel ill and lovely, heartsick and fearful in one short sitting, hitting every thinkable emotion clean through. Know that in a year when the Fiery Furnaces, the Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens have each put out material, The Robot Ate Me's On Vacation stands as one of the very best and brightest pop albums in recent memory. With food for thought, empathy to spare and a song for every mindset, it is an occasion for rejoicing, and is simply not to be missed.

Released on Swin Slowly Records (2004), released on 5RC Records (2005).

Reviewed by Sarah Peters
A former music editor and staff writer for LAS, Sarah Peters recently disappeared. Perhaps one day she will surface again, who knows.

See other reviews by Sarah Peters



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