Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dallas Orbiter - Motorcycle Diagrams

Dallas Orbiter
Motorcycle Diagrams (Princess Records, 2008)
Grade: B+

Download: Dallas Orbiter - "The Damocles File"
Download: Dallas Orbiter - "Caspian"

Even though eclectic group Dallas Orbiter mainly dabble in otherworldly art-rock territory previously explored by the likes of Radiohead, Talking Heads, and Grandaddy, the Minneapolis-based quintet incorporates stylistic touches from jazz, funk, and trip-hop to create a listening experience that’s both exhilarating and disorienting in a single song.

Like most groups who create music with a tinge of the avant-garde, Dallas Orbiter’s latest album, Motorcycle Diagrams, tries to throw its listeners a few sonic curveballs, most notably on the opening track “Caspian” and instrumental freak-out “Bzzjh”. (Don’t ask me how to pronounce that). From there, Motorcycle Diagrams consists of beautifully hallucinogenic ballads (“Brow Of Zeus”, “The Dawn & Jitters”) and quirky, upbeat rockers (“Ambuzz Is For Lovers”, “The Damocles File”). While the artful detours, like on the haunted-house beginning of “Maybe Soon The Lakeflies”, don’t really lead the listener to newfound paths, Motorcycle Diagrams has enough strong, consistent songwriting overall to make the album a worthwhile ride.

The album begins with “Caspian”, a track which sounds like the mutant sibling of Radiohead’s “Airbag” and one of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s false-start-freak-out-the-listener album openers. “Caspian” has such diverse touches as call-and-response guitar licks, a syncopated bass line, herky-jerky start-stop drumming, and a deliberately over-distorted vocal. The end result of all these techniques is utter confusion, but also curiosity. The rhythm section eventually establishes a groove which sounds like chaos theory come to life, as swells of feedback firmly entrench themselves in the background. It's a little disappointing that “Caspian” sputters to an anti-climatic end, but it doesn't do so before piquing the listener’s intrigue.

Dallas Orbiter then rewards those who are still captivated by launching into the sci-fi camp and dingy garage-rock of “Ampbuzz Is For Lovers”. At first, the track’s dissonant half-steps suggest another space oddity of some kind, but, shortly thereafter, “Ampbuzz” explodes into a raw, grungy guitar riff. The song still retains the edge of “Caspian”, but this time there’s equal amounts of tension and release. The former arrivesin the form of a gnarly keyboard solo and the latter re-establishes itself every time the guitars dig their heels into the song’s refrain. Elsewhere, “The Dawn and Jitters” either coolly invents the space reggae genre, or, more likely, adeptly adapts the funky art-rock chill of TV On The Radio and “Stabbed By Grace” combines a smooth, lounge-like atmosphere (particularly worth pointing out is the sliding bass line) with an uplifting, ethereal chorus.

Those invigorating motifs are what Dallas Orbiter do best, and Motorcycle Diagrams reaches its peak with a song called “The Damocles File”. The waves of keyboard arpeggios should have fans of Grandaddy smiling and nodding while the sharp, staccato rhythms will have everyone else heading straight for the dance floor. Structurally, “File” is standard, verse-chorus-verse pop song for the most part, but Dallas Orbiter’s tight playing still make it thrilling to hear. A couple of brief instrumental breakdown aptly demonstrate the jazz influence which occasionally creeps into the quintet’s music (see also the dub-reggae bass lines that crop up on tracks like “Pigeon”).

Of course, every peak has its valley, and while Dallas Orbiter don’t really lose the momentum gained by “The Damocles File”, they don’t quite keep up with it either. “New Chrome” has a nifty, Devo-esque, nervous twitch to it, but songs can’t sustain themselves on quirk alone. “Hallelujah, The Jetpack Dancer” fairs much better, as it recalls a doo-wop song covered by Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. Finally, “Meet You” closes Motorcycle Diagrams on an excellently epic note. The song begins with the kind of ambient atmospherics inherent in a Sigur Ros song, but then pivots to extended, heavy, but still experimental, jamming; Stoners should approve highly.

Though Motorcycle Diagrams is neither a musical miracle, nor simply psychedelia, Dallas Orbiter show enough promise to keep curious listeners interested.

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(Jonathan Graef)

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