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Colossal Yes - Charlemagne’s Big Thaw

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Artist: Colossal Yes

Album: Charlemagne’s Big Thaw

Label: Ba Da Bing

Review date: Jan. 29, 2009

Comets on Fire drummer Utrillo Kushner returns to his seat behind the piano on Charlemagne’s Big Thaw, his second outing as Colossal Yes, and is once again joined by guitarist/bassist Eli Eckert and drummer Garett Goddard (both of Howlin’ Rain). Aside from a couple of cuts that wouldn’t have been out of place on the band’s debut, Acapulco Roughs, Thaw finds Kushner moving toward a rather different sound, dispensing with the meandering epics of the first album in favor or shorter, more conventional pop songs, and embracing a more energetic rock-oriented approach. While this change in tack bears some fruit, it results in an album that feels less unique, self-assured, and coherent than its superior predecessor.

Whereas Acapulco Roughs was permeated throughout by a mellow, stoned, grandeur, Thaw fails to find a consistent tone. At times, Kushner deploys some of the same musical tactics he used on his debut, but the ornamentation that felt organic and natural there (flutes, horns, solos, etc) sounds forced here, as though he is trying to add novelty or excitement to otherwise lackluster material. Eckert shares songwriting credits on three tracks, and his guitar takes on a more prominent role, signaling the move to a more band-driven approach, while Kushner’s Comets on Fire bandmate Ben Chasny (who also is credited as mixer) makes a cameo on the instrumental “Permafrost Drip.” While Kushner may or may not have consciously decided to cede some control of Colossal Yes’s sound to his bandmates, Thaw lacks the consistent and clear authorial stamp of Roughs, replacing that album’s unique and personal sound with one that sounds more tentative, more labored, and less inspired.

None of this, however, should be taken as an indication that the album is a bust. There’s some excellent songwriting on display, both in the upbeat and lighthearted mould of Roughs (“A Ballad is the Air that You Breathe”), and in a rougher-hewn, more rock-oriented vein (supercharged opener “The Fraudulent Singer”). Some of the jokier, oddball moments work as well, notably the “Bennie and the Jets” homage “They Feast on Us/We Feed on Them,” which finds Kushner putting on an arena-rock persona and is punctuated by sound effects of screaming fans. Nonetheless, nothing here stands out as much as the highlights of the band’s debut. Charlemagne’s Big Thaw largely hovers at a level of enjoyable mediocrity that leaves one with a desire to revisit Acapulco Roughs.

By Michael Cramer

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Acapulco Roughs

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