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The Casual Dots - The Casual Dots

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Artist: The Casual Dots

Album: The Casual Dots

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: Jun. 9, 2004

The Casual Dots' self-titled effort is easy to overlook. With two guitars, drums, and no bass, it fits the mold of every other garage record. The musicians have been recording for 10 years now, starting in Bikini Kill and Slant 6, which actually makes this debut a late-career punk record. Hardly a selling point. And a casual comparison suggests that the Casual Dots aren't much different than Christine Billotte's previous band Quix*O*Tic.

They are. This is a fully realized set that stakes out a personal sound, and it might be the best thing these artists have ever produced. After a heavy start, off-kilter guitar lines creep in, and the rest of the record balances blunt riffing with subtler textures. Billotte and Kathi Wilcox's dual leads tangle, syncopate, synch briefly in arpeggios, then spiral apart. Like everything about this record, the guitar work is deceptively simple, instantly catchy, but never obvious.

Billotte's vocals range from declarative punk to stately soaring. "Mama's Gonna Bake Us a Cake" barks out a leftist allegory, and one song later, she has a folky clarity that recalls early Jefferson Airplane. A straight take on the early-'60s Etta James ballad "I'll Dry My Tears" has Billotte dropping classic pop inflections in all the right places, edging towards sobs, but never really emoting. She isn't cold, but the remoteness in her vocals casts an introverted feel over the whole record. When they hop through another blues nugget, they pull off the line "Your love is like a bee...an EVIL bumble bee," without lapsing into corniness.

Leftist punk, '60s folk rock, sweet Rhythm and Blues, garage rock - that's a lot of reference points for a 10-song debut. The Casual Dots' restraint allows them to sample a range genres without being bombastic or willfully ecletic. The band has an uncanny ability to stiffen up the swing of a beat just enough to make it tense, without turning it inert. Guy Picciotto's spare production shifts the room sound and reverb just enough to showcase each song, never explicitly evoking the quoted styles. The influences fade back into the Casual Dots minimalism.

The results manage to be both laid back and abrasive, and with their expertise at patently unhip cover versions, the Minutemen aren't an undeserved comparison. It's too bad the similarities end there, because a 20-track album from the Dots would have been anything but excessive.

By Ben Donnelly

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