Bar band or post-post-rock extraordinaires?
The success of the Ann Arbor label Ghostly International has, until now, been predicated almost entirely upon the work of Tadd Mullinix (aka Dabrye, James Cotton) and the nostalgic Disco Nouveau compilation. With the release of Midwest Product’s new post-rock/electronic fission album Specifics, Ghostly have in one motion diversified their catalogue and broken a band whose sound is clearly in high demand these days.
Through some process of cultural cycles, interest in all things early-80's is at a peak (or maybe still in ascension), as evidenced by the distastefully frequent use of particular fonts and the sudden popularity of new wave and electro. Midwest Product falls in neither of these genres, but the ways in which they combine electronic and acoustic instruments recalls an era twenty to twenty-five years ago when electronics were largely a tool for live bands such as A Flock of Seagulls or Parliament. Like Trans Am, Midwest Product echoes that era in its synthesizers, while adding live drums reminiscent of Tortoise. And like Trans Am, they are not afraid to use cliches like the vocoder or the song that swells and then dies.
To their immense credit, Midwest Product refrains from overindulgence. When they jam, it always happens in the right places and doesn’t continue beyond the point of interest. They are not obsessed with their own talents, and through restraint find a good balance between structure and fluidity.
What’s especially right with Specifics is the manner in which accomplishes what Trans Am has done for years, only with less artificial tension and more humor. The highest point of technical skill are the electronics, so we are spared sweaty guitar heroics and left with a more detailed exploration of the inherent possibilities of mixing a synthesizer and a computer in with “traditional” rock instruments. The electronic noises don’t evoke cuteness, per se, but they aren’t deadly serious either.
The song “Pigeons” is the likely hit with college radio, being the only one with vocals, and vocoded vocals at that. Most of the album, however, eschews regular chord changes and catchy melodies in favor of more sustained adventures within one idea. “Alternator,” for example, adds and deletes melodies and samples over a simple live drum beat accentuated flawlessly by electronics. The voices of sheep play a prominent role.
Specifics is not simply a “retro” record, rehashing old ideas without genuine concern for the music. It may tow the line, but unless you’re an unabashed purist who can’t fathom anyone making their influences obvious, the nostalgia won’t overwhelm you.
For those who’ve been following Ghostly for a while, Midwest Product might seem like a strange addition to the label’s lineup. As Ghostly’s roster grows, it seems that they move further from having an apparent vision for a signature sound. Though owner Sam Valenti IV has stated that eclecticism is a desirable goal, it seems an open question where the label will go in the near future.
By Ben Tausig