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Tonstartssbandht - An When

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Artist: Tonstartssbandht

Album: An When

Label: Does Are

Review date: Aug. 14, 2009

No one seems to know much about Tonstartssbandht. They are a pair of brothers, evidently, native to Florida and now residing either in New York and Montreal or Brooklyn and Berlin, depending on which MySpace (the band or the label) you believe. They have a smattering of singles, primarily on the Does Are label (the same Edwin answers emails to both the label and the band) and this single full-length, which bridges Animal Collective-ish choral clangor with lo-fi droning space rock, slips in Disney references and sly nods to Big Country, Spaceman 3 and the Police, yet remains completely original. An When is that rare sui generic kind of record, which sounds both perfectly current and unlike anything else you might be listening to at the moment.

The one thing we do know about “Tonstartssbandht” is how to pronounce it (ton-STARTS-band). That’s thanks to an introductory track, where against a drone of guitars and a wash of spooky vocals, a man poses a series of questions. “What’s the name of your band?” “What do you call your music?” “What’s your favorite band?” To each of these, a girl answers “Tonstartssbandht” (except when she says “The Rutles”). It’s a short track, not really a song at all, but its mix of noise and mystery and sidelong humor makes a pretty good set up for the rest of the album.

The first real song is “Black Country,” whose big anthemic chorus is wrapped in fogs of static and hiss. There’s a staccato guitar riff that was driving me crazy with its just-out-of-focus, early-MTV familiarity, until I looked at the title again and thought of Big Country. Sure enough, it’s the break from “In a Big Country,” buried in fuzz. Not a bad reference, actually, for Tonstartssbandht’s large-scale melodic gestures. It’s the first of several odd musical references. “Little April Showers,” up next, is the rain song from Bambi, delivered fairly straight, with criss-crossing vocal counterparts and delicately massed harmonies. Later on in the album, Tonstartssbandht covers the Spaceman 3 song in “Walken with Jesus,” though, they invert the original’s priorities, bringing the atmospherically vague guitars up front and nearly hiding the vocals. There is also a song called “Andy Summers,” though what it has to do with the Police guitar player is not entirely clear.

The phrase “not entirely clear” by the way can be applied to pretty much all of An When, whose lo-fi production pushes sounds up into the mix without clarifying them, so that you hear blurry masses of sound. You can’t make out the words, for the most part, though you can tell they’re there. You can’t always tell what instruments are playing – or indeed whether there are instruments. (On a couple of songs, “Oro” and “Imenhope,” wordless vocals are chanted, bleated and barked in complicated intersecting patterns that are, at once, melody, rhythm and accompaniment.)

The CD is often confusing, but it can be exhilarating, too, as its fuzz-coated clouds of melody and noise swell to dreamlike vastness. “Midnight Cobras,” one of the disc’s best songs, is triumphantly out of focus, riding a clatter over blurring melodies, traversing caverns of pick-rattling breaks and trailing off into distant beats and half-heard shouts. “Softly Kidding,” which closes the disc, is even better, with its choral melodies rising in waves and crests and surges, a church choir gone ephemerally, allusively nonlinear. The borders are indistinct, the words (if there are any) obscured, but the sensation is of boundless, ecstatic space. You hear this and you’re glad the band has taken the time to tell you how to pronounce “Tonstartssbandht,” because you get the feeling you’re going to be talking about them for a while.

By Jennifer Kelly

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