My brother is in Hungary right now, teaching English for a year. Let's call him "Dave." I also have two good friends who recently went to live in Europe for a few months. One of them--let's call him "John"--is a frequent traveler (not to mention, an excellent cook) who, most notably, recently spent a few years with the Peace Corps in Africa by way of the Ivory Coast. Lately it seems like everyone is leaving.
About a month ago I had a dream where all of these things came together in a rather bizarre way. I was in Africa, of course, in a rather sophisticated library, in the kitchen section of the library, and I was purchasing some of "John"'s lovely peanut butter chocolate bars (though truthfully, he is better known for his lemon). The bars were perched upon an impossibly high shelf, but fortunately, after convincing the head librarian (who bore a striking resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt) to allow me to stack enough stools one on top of the other until I could reach them, the bars were soon mine.
I took my newfound treasure out of the library and began to travel the surrounding town. It was still Africa, I suppose, but the ground was lush with verdant grass and rolling hillsides. In the valley below, I could see the ruins of some ancient city below, all Parthenons and Stonehenges, all familiar, and yet so strangely out of place. People were busily walking and driving by, none seeming to have the time to acknowledge what was surely an important relic of their past.
Then by a small hut in the midst of it all, I saw a band playing. As I drew closer, I could see that my brother, "Dave," was at their lead, playing both guitar and accordion. The rest of the band was made up of musicians playing instruments as varied as their ethnicities, as well as a few indigenous animals on banjo and percussion. Their song was both lulling and enlivening enough to jar me from my dream.
I had, of course, fallen asleep to Andrew Broder's (aka Fog's) new release, 10th Avenue Freakout. It was morning, and it was the weekend, so half lucid, I played the album again. I had an immediate bond to it. One line from the title track struck me in particular: "Sometimes you dream you're in a foreign country/ And you packed all the wrong clothes/ Cars up on the overpass fake the sound of waves/ I can feel the buildings shaking."
The last time I'd heard from Broder was in 2003, when he released both the quirkily ethereal bedroom symphony Ether Teeth as Fog (one of RED's top 25 albums of that year) and a pair of EPs under Broder's birth name, pitting his home-baked production against hip-hop tracks from artists like Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, and Outkast (which, in a special edition of "RED Takin' it to the Streets," I might add fared very well).
As different as these two projects were, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by how different 10th Avenue Freakout was from my expectations. What was I expecting? Well, something more along the lines of Ether Teeth--several brilliant moments couched in unconventional (some might say "inaccessible") songs, and cushioned by several breezy passages meant more to establish mood than to stand alone as songs.
Don't get me wrong--I loved Ether Teeth. But in comparison, 10th Avenue Freakout makes it sound like, I don't know, Linkin Park or something. Yeah. While still unconventional (and possibly that other word as well), this album is also one of the most focused and consistently satisfying ones I've heard in some time (to be specific, about six months, though for me that's saying something).
"Can You Believe It?" opens the album in true classic fashion: a rotary drumloop, a choppy digital ringtone, an elastic bassline, and eventually trumpets (yes!) back a song about a man who is excited to go to a theme park and experience being a hunter/gatherer like prehistoric man, until he learns how much they're charging for it.
In fact, the next five songs charge through with just as much strength as the first track (especially "The Rabbit," with its sublime lo-fi chorus), and it's not until "The Small Burn" that Broder takes things down a notch, all smooth and Ether Teeth like.
The second half of the album is a bit more experimental, but to the patient listener is just as rewarding, and it features such gems as "Hummer" and "The Poor Fella," the latter of which, along with the middle passage of album closer "The Hully Gully," comes so close to divine that I dare not describe it further. (Hey, if the guy from that sports magazine I read last week can say it about U2, I can sure as hell say it about Fog.)
The truth be told, I do not expect everyone else to enjoy this album as much as I do. It doesn't have the crossover appeal of a band like, say, The Shins. It certainly doesn't have the mind control ability of a band like, say, U2 (seriously, I command you to say it!). And while I find Broder's lyrics to be profound, distinctive, and intriguing, some may find that lines like "Jesus Christ is my American Idol/ He's the brand new funky president" from "We're Winning" don't sit well with them, because they want Vonzell to win.
But when it comes down to it, this is an important album. It has a pulse, it breathes, it has cares and needs. It will not leave you when everyone else does--your friends and family, your mores and beliefs, your culture, your pathos and your planet. Your civilization. Your existence. It is not that often that I feel compelled to overstate the role of the music that I love to intergalactic proportions. (Why, if memory serves, it's been almost six months now). But once again, this album has compelled me to do so.