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Beef Terminal - The Grey Knowledge

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Artist: Beef Terminal

Album: The Grey Knowledge

Label: Noise Factory

Review date: Feb. 3, 2003

In the Thick of Things

It’s one of those dreary days so common in San Francisco – not so cruel as to lacerate your face with rain, but just wet enough to squelch any bounce you might have had in your step. The mood isn’t helped by the rain splashing through the open window, nor by repeated listenings to The Grey Knowledge, Mike Matheson’s sophomore effort as Beef Terminal on Noise Factory Records. Lest that be taken as a statement that The Grey Knowledge is good primarily for moping around the house and feeling sorry yourself because it’s a little wet outside, I ought to make clear that yes, the album has its melancholy post-rock moments. And yes, there are the slight melodic hints of poutiness that so often accompany rainy day favorites.

But unlike so many albums that sing wistful songs longing for escape, or angstier dirges mourning better days, Matheson mostly avoids giving you the impression that he’s fleeing for some fantasy otherworld, some elusive daydream. The Grey Knowledge’s prettiness is thick, simple, and sweetly grounded in the immediate. Matheson’s tracks aren’t sharpened into exquisite, crystalline nostalgia; nor are they groping for a sleek utopian future. Padded with layers of softly twanging guitars, The Grey Knowledge is a tenderly, bulky kind of beautiful, a little earnest, a little rumpled, the kind that has its place in the present. Reviewers have called Beef Terminal’s work “lonely,” but I think that to say so is a conflation of “lonely” and “alone.” “Marston Lane,” one of the album’s standouts, doesn’t curl in the corner; it neither rejects nor pleads. Instead, it lolls and ambles through drum-patterned solitude. Matheson’s guitar work is at times a pure and peaceful pleasure: “Red Sky Warming” holds steady with a basic, earnest arpeggio that feels like home.

In this year of albums full of glitch, buzzy filters, and slyly cut up fragments of sound, The Grey Knowledge could be called plain. It lacks the ironic wink and pose that characterizes much of what’s been coming out in 2002, it’s too clumsy to be cute, it wears its little heart on its sleeve. Even when the album transitions to the more ethereal of the tracks, a cover of the Eurythmics’ “The City Never Sleeps,” the spookiness is compromised by a warmth that’s maybe unintentional. Matheson might chafe at the Casper the Friendly Ghost treatment he’s getting here, but the strength of his songs don’t lie in their spookiness. There are far spookier contemporaries making far sadder and twisted tracks that also cull from analog tape samples and eerie ambiences, but Matheson isn’t competing. Where he triumphs isn’t in the haze: it’s in the solid here and now, in his clear-eyed motifs that repeat like small, satisfied sighs, in melodic arcs of articulate caress. The worst way to spend a stormy day is to wish you were anywhere else but here and alone. The best is embodied by the lovely peace of The Grey Knowledge: instead of wanting out, you want to be right where you are, doing right what you’re doing, with the rain splashing through your open window.

By Selena Hsu

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