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Supercluster - Waves

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Artist: Supercluster

Album: Waves

Label: Studio Mouse Productions

Review date: Nov. 12, 2009

Pylon, the band that REM drummer Bill Berry famously called “the best rock ‘n roll band in America,” ended its first run in 1983. The band continued to reform intermittently over the years, first in the late 1980s to play on REM’s Green tour, and later in the mid-2000s. That second reunion was still, more or less, underway when Supercluster formed in 2007, around a nucleus of Pylon singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay, her husband Bob Hay, Pylon guitarist Randy Bewley, Hannah Jones of the New Sound of Numbers, John Fernandes, Kay Stanton and Bill David.

Like a lot of women musicians, Briscoe Hay had taken some time off from music to raise children. But as her two daughters got older, she found herself thinking about writing again. Though billed as an Athens supergroup, and often including well-known Elephant 6 types as guests, Supercluster was originally just a way to record songs that Briscoe Hay couldn’t get out of her head and didn’t see as Pylon material.

Musically, Waves is a blast from a variety of pasts. You can hear the fizzy, chanted deadpan of late 1970s/early 1980s new wave, a la Pylon and the B-52s. Bill David puts a high flickering filigree of mandolin on many of these tracks, recalling REM. And a brace of E6ers – Will Cullen Hart, Heather McIntosh, John Fernandes – swaddle bright melodies with shadowy, multi-instrumented psychedelia. There’s even a flash of the 1960s in simple, if not simplistic, sentiments. Songs favor peace (“Peace Disco Song,” “Time to End the War”), environmental stewardship (“Brave Tree”) and female empowerment (“Mermaid’s Tale”), in cheerful, non-didactic ways.

And yet, though Waves is, on its surface, a happy, upbeat record, it was touched, unexpectedly, by tragedy when Randy Bewley died mid-recording. He was driving in the early evening of February 23rd, had a heart attack and flipped his van. In a coma for two days, Bewley passed away on the 25th. (Coincidentally, Briscoe Hay was a nurse at the hospital where he died.)

Bradford Cox from Deerhunter stepped in on guitar to help finish the album, so you can tell, to some extent, which songs came before and after. He is, for instance, on “River,” a bittersweet country waltz, where Briscoe Hay views springtime through sadness, and on closer “316,” a minor key, quintessentially new wave chant about the desire to “get back safe.” Cox is not listed on “The Night I Died,” but it’s hard to hear the song’s lyrics without injecting Bewley into the narrative. “The night I died was a cold night / This is where I grabbed my fame / Dancing in the alley, lost in a box / Everything is different, yet everything’s the same.”

It’s a dramatic backstory, one that might very easily overshadow what’s on the record. In fact, Waves might be interesting solely because it was the last time Bewley and Briscoe Hay worked together, or because it brought together people from every chapter in Athens’ rock and roll history, or because it sounds a bit like Pylon. But what’s really compelling about this album is the way it allows a very time-specific new wave sound to evolve, reflecting an adult context where parenting and mortality play a role, yet retaining the bubbly, prickly insouciance of early 1980s underground pop.

By Jennifer Kelly

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