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Treasure State - Retain the Risk

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Artist: Treasure State

Album: Retain the Risk

Label: Moneyshot

Review date: Sep. 23, 2002

The Sound of Silence

Although many bands today operate with a more-is-more aesthetic, there's still something to be said for a minimalist approach. How to fill up space with sound is a difficult problem to solve for everyone who's ever made music, and as musicians become ever more enabled by technology, it's tempting to load their sound with sonic minutae and overly busy arrangements. Treasure State, a three-piece from Washington State, have chosen the more stripped-down approach, and it pays dividends on their first album, Retain the Risk.

Treasure State frontman Robert Mercer's most high-profile gig is playing in Joel R.L. Phelps' Downer Trio, and while his band differs in approach from both Phelps and his former band, Silkworm, there is a shared sensibility amongst all three groups. They're all trios, for starters, but they all focus on wringing the most out of sparse arrangements, and of exploring the power of space, in both a literal and figurative sense. Like Silkworm, Treasure State leave huge gaps of silence in their songs, refusing to play more notes then are necessary. Lyrically, Mercer also prefers to slyly hint at meaning, and if his songs are about anything, they're about the space between what people say and how they really feel, as well as the literal, permanent gap between people. Words and music are two ways we try to close this gap, to connect with each other, but these efforts are never completely satisfying. Even the bridging of this gap afforded by sex fades, and all we can do is attempt to communicate, again and again, in any way we can. Mercer's songs are all about this stuff, about the constant back and forth of human interaction, and his band plays with these kind of tensions wonderfully, creating a lovely, low-key gem of an album.

Repetition is a key to this record, which is why it benefits so greatly from repeated listens. Many of the songs are built from cycling guitar phrases, lyrics that circle around themselves, and long, trailing codas that spiral off from the main body of the song. Mercer works a neat trick by repeating a lyric but singing it differently each time, over and over, so that it acquires a shifting, ambiguous meaning. The music reflects this, subtly commenting on and reflecting Mercer's singing. One song, "What Do We Do Now That We've Achieved Everything" revolves for the most part around a single phrase: "We go on / We need more than I think we realize". On paper, it doesn't seem like much, but the song alternates between stuttering, stop/start verses and slinky choruses where the drums stutter beneath Mercer's singing, offering a propulsive counterpoint to the ennui of the lyrics. After a slight pause, the band goes on, gradually building tension around a simple guitar melody until the guitar resolves itself and the song gently comes to an end.

With its emphasis on minimal arrangements, Retain the Risk could come off as trite and empty in the wrong hands. But Mercer and his bandmates Mitch Leffler and Dan Rathman have an intuitive understanding of how songs work, how they become more than the sum of their parts and connect with the listener. Many of the most enjoyable parts of the album come in the spaces between the singing, when the band gets going and Mercer's fluid, angular guitar work is given room to breathe. The results are often beautifully hypnotic, with the music working to bridge the gaps left by the lyrics. One success of the band's insistence on such minimal elements is that real weight is given to even the smallest detail. A single note or vocal inflection becomes enormously important after a few listens, gaining possibilities and meaning that a more busy sound just wouldn't allow.

The downside of Treasure State's approach is that during moments when things don't come together, the music can sound thin and underconceived. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between. There are also times when the music might sound to a passing listener like some variant of emo, with its swirling, darting guitar and high-pitched singing. It's not, and the band is doing something much more nuanced and interesting than anything most emo bands attempt. The inherent problem with emo is that there's no conflict between the singing and the music; the singer sings about being upset and the music sounds upset. This kind of art, lacking any kind of tension or ambiguity, let alone any kind of subtext, is only excusable if you're a teenager and doesn't usually result in very compelling music. The Beatles, among other bands, were great at matching upbeat, bouncy music to sad or even twisted lyrics, and it's not difficult to see that their albums have more legs than those of the Promise Ring. Similarly, on the aforementioned "What Do We Do…", Treasure State match lyrics about stasis to propulsive, insistent music, allowing the band to comment on and transform the content of the song.

All of this, of course, would mean nothing if the music didn't connect on a visceral level, and thankfully, it does. Many of the songs are fast, and although they don't exactly rock they'll get your toes tapping. The music is almost always very beautiful, sometimes pop in an idiosyncratic kind of way. Mercer obviously loves the possibilities of guitar, and he creates some amazing, crisscrossing guitar lines, for the most part relying entirely on a clean, clear guitar sound that fits well with his voice. The band has managed to carve out a sound that, while sharing elements with other bands, is also quite unique and quite effective. And so, at least for this album, less is absolutely more.

By Jason Dungan

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