09 October, 2008

Brilliant Pet Tricks

Sometimes genius is hard to recognize. It may sneak up on you like a cold, there on the margins of your awareness but never quite definite until it has you in its clutches. Maybe it’s just allergies, you think, or the pollution is particularly bad today (pretty common here in Paradise). You sneeze, wipe your nose and go on with what you were doing. Then, the next morning, WHAMMO!!! And you’re laid out like one of the Painted Pitbull’s meeses. Elvis Costello’s records always surprised me this way.

Sometimes it isn’t. Some genius signals its arrival with blaring trumpets, a big bass drum and the clanging of cookie sheets. Celebrants of the past referred to this parade as “a joyous noise” and it serves, unlike subtler pleasures, to awaken us from our drowsy complacency into a new world of unimagined possibilities.

Let us now welcome “Animal!,” the sophomore effort of Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s. It arrives with alarums and rainbows. And it is as beautiful as any angels.

I’ve been an advocate for this band lo these many years, ever since I stumbled across “The Dust Of Retreat” in 2006. I loved that album deeply, preaching Richard Edwards’s songwriting virtues to any who would listen and some who would not. Songs like “Skeleton Key,” “Vampires in Blue Dresses,” “Talking in Code” and “On A Freezing Chicago Street” exemplify the best that pop has to offer: lyric intelligence, sly wit, melodic originality and a kind of exuberant arrangement we have never before seen in an indie band. At the outset they seldom toured far beyond their mid-Western homebase of Indianapolis, despite my pleas (through myspace) for a West Coast swing. And then, six months ago, they passed through Echo Park. Because of the Echo’s tiny space and the unwieldy girth of the band (eight pieces which sometimes expand to ten when fortune smiles) the brilliance of the performance was muted by murky sound. Still, I and my friend (a novitiate since fully converted to Margotic proselyte) bounced and swayed and merrily shouted along to the set pieces of “Dust” and a few numbers from the still-embryonic “Animal!” I thought I might love the new album but reserved judgment, remembering the scars left by second albums past.

Tuesday night removed all doubts. By whatever kindness of fate, the show at the Troubadour proved to be the album release party. The modest venue was packed to the rafters, a crowd mostly comprised of rabid Margot fans like myself who knew every word of the entire “Dust” set-list. We were ready to cheer for “Quiet as a Mouse.” But I doubt anyone was quite prepared for the gorgeous, exotic creature that is “Animal!”

People go to shows to hear familiar songs. Usually, they applaud graciously for the new material and howl for the hits. But Tuesday night saw extraordinary ovations for blushing, untried tunes, like “Mariel’s Brazen Overture” that opened the set with a riff adapted from the equally-haunting Kate Bush gem “Army Dreamers.” One after another, the new songs proved even more complex, more expansive, more mature than what I had once considered the height of brilliance in “Dust.” While the hits certainly brought the house to its feet, it was the new material that ruled the evening in a way I had never before experienced.

After the show, I talked briefly with Erik Kang, the fiddler and lap steeler who manned the merch table in the bar. I mentioned how much I loved the set; that I’d spoken with him at the Echo show and even bought a print by Stacy Novak (the band’s pet artist responsible for all three album covers and most of the promotional art for the band). Then I queried him about the odd diffraction of the release: Epic offers a cd, “Not Animal!” and a vinyl pressing, “Animal!” Which, I asked Erik, should I buy? He explained that the release had been delayed because the label and band couldn’t agree on the album tracks, so Epic had released their version for the mass market on cd and consigned the band’s choice to a double LP with a free digital download included. Although I do not presently have a working turntable, I bought the vinyl. I always trust the artists’ instincts over those of the bean-counters, and once again I’ve been proven right. This is not to say that “Not Animal!” isn’t a great album. It is, and if all you can find is the cd, by all means snatch it up. I have both now, and I can state that “Animal!,” not “Not Animal!” is the album for the ages. As Erik said, “If you don’t buy ‘Animal!’ you miss the whole first third of the set.” That first third he refers to is the best third.

If I have ever steered you right, then attend to “Mariel’s Brazen Overture,” “As Tall As Cliffs,” “There’s Talk Of Mine Shafts” and “My Baby (Shoots Her Mouth Off).” Let the swirling, eerie “At The Carnival” spin you giddy. Pop for the vinyl, turntable or no: it’s the only way you’ll hear these lovely songs (except “ATAC”). If there is any justice, these kids will be filling arenas someday. Richard Edwards is a true artist, and he has gathered about him a crew as agile, inventive and tight as any band playing. Though we have only just passed the autumnal equinox, I make this guarantee: “Animal!” will be my pick for the best album of 2008.