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The Ladybug Transistor - Ladybug Transistor

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Artist: The Ladybug Transistor

Album: Ladybug Transistor

Label: Merge

Review date: Nov. 19, 2003

Merge Records has long been defined more by ideas than any particular sound or feel to the music released by its artists. Unlike Ian MacKaye’s Dischord, Merge has not focused exclusively on local bands, nor does it feature a shared musical approach. Superchunk’s Mac and Laura instead have fostered a broad “community” consisting of bands they like, which could mean a local upstart or the new record from the Buzzcocks. Merge has (justifiably) been praised for years, producing some classic records and maintaining a level of quality such that you could safely buy a Merge record without knowing a thing about the band. But the label was often defined more by what it wasn’t than what it was.

This has begun to change slightly, though not because of a drop in quality or some kind of aesthetic doldrums. Rather, a group of bands on the roster have quietly built up a sound based around pop classicism, able musicianship, and a post-modern sense of disjunction and inclusion. Bands like the Essex Green, Matt Suggs, newcomers the Rosebuds, and the Ladybug Transistor have, more or less accidentally, finally created a “Merge sound”, although it is typically idiosyncratic and hard to place. The forefathers of this sound, the Ladybug Transistor, have been quietly honing their lush, formalist pop for years in a sleepy Brooklyn neighborhood. Located just south of Prospect Park, it’s a slightly faded, dated area of creaky Victorian homes and stately apartment buildings, timeless in a forgotten way. Seemingly miles away from the noise and flash of Manhattan, it’s a place that could exist almost anywhere, at any time in the last thirty years. Almost nothing here betrays change or “progress”, and although it is distinctly urban, it betrays few of the trappings that we’ve grown accustomed to in our consumer-oriented cities. As such, it’s the perfect place to make music or write, a place so immediately dull that it becomes slightly thrilling, a blank slate rather than an information-saturated labyrinth. You can be or make anything you want here, and that would seem to suit the Ladybug Transistor perfectly.

Although shamelessly eclectic and retro in their references, the Transistor are not pumping life into dead music or ripping off their forebears. They do make use of certain sounds and strategies employed by the Beach Boys, Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker, et al., but they primarily return to these sources for a deeper philosophical inspiration. “The Places You’ll Call Home” is a fine example of the Ladybug Transistor’s ability to effortlessly channel a feeling or a perspective, rather than a particular sound. Although the refrain’s lyrics feature a tip to the Velvets, the song is a perfect distillation of everything that was sharp, intelligent, and musically sophisticated about British pop, from the Kinks to Walker to early Bowie. It’s a cool, precise song whose melodic flourishes and vocal restraint hint at a much deeper emotional life below the song’s surface.

Although keyboardist Sasha Bell sings lead on “The Places You’ll Call Home”, the majority of songwriting and singing belongs to founding member Gary Olson, whose even baritone gives the often bouncy songs a tugging undertow. Olson does not possess a naturalistic vocal style; he sings in a very considered, somewhat self-conscious way, giving the songs a rather fascinating self-awareness. The band both seamlessly inhabits their sounds and stands outside of it, using its various elements to very specific ends.

If labelmates the Essex Green are the Jefferson Airplane, then the Ladybug Transistor are the Mamas and the Papas, a group defined by its bond as a unit and an obsession with place. Travel, long-distance relationships, and the outdoors are recurring lyrical themes, and although the band writes in its house in Brooklyn, they wisely decamped to Arizona for the album’s recording. This fairly extreme change of locale seems to have given the band a greater sense of energy than on previous albums, a focused and understated swagger, rather than the politeness which occasionally marred their earlier work. Here, the harmonies and surging melodies feel natural and completely spontaneous, pop as a relaxed outpouring of sound.

If there is a “Merge sound”, it is, like all other “sounds” before it, highly subjective and ephemeral. It may speak of the larger influence that Merge bands are having, or it may simply be a coincidence. The Ladybug Transistor have been around long enough to transcend such qualifications, and they have a sureness about them that places them beyond mere replicators of influence. Smart, slightly romantic, witty and self-aware, the songs on this record exist on their own terms, intent on creating their own pop myths and resonances. Holed up in their Brooklyn digs, the band probably could care less about any talk of “sounds” or scenes, or what their exact references might be. Rather, they will, it would seem, continue to live in their own, remote part of the city, scoring music to their particular and very personal imaginations.

By Jason Dungan

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