I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
(Does Are, 2009)
What’s the name of your band?
What do you call your music?
What’s your favorite band?
How do you say your band’s name?
So begins the gloriously weird An When, Tonstartssbandht’s 2009 offering and first full length. And I see you looking curiously at the name of the band and wondering how the hell you pronounce that. I had the exact same question, and it’s definitely not immediately clear what the answer is. Fortunately, the Q&A above comes directly from track one, “Tonstartsbandht?”, as a male voice asks a female voice a series of questions over a droning backdrop, the answers to which, as you can see, are mostly the band’s name. Except when the answer is The Rutles. Which … I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine. Anyhow, even though it isn’t clear by looking at it, “Tonstartssbandht” is pronounced with four syllables, that final “T” sneaking through without a vowel: “TON-starts-band-t,” in descending emphasis. So that’s out of the way.
I had no idea what to expect when I first listened – my curiosity was piqued when they were name-checked in a Cokemachineglow review for The Turquoise, the great new album by fellow Montréallers Pop Winds. So I thought I’d give it a shot based on that, and, curious opening track aside, the trebly sheen of guitar abuse bursting over the simple, heavily-echoed beat that follows places Tonstartssbandht squarely in no-fi territory, approximating The Jesus and Mary Chain, but not bothering to clean up any of the elements in post-production. “Black Country” is decidedly in the red in every sense. But the melody is easy on the ears – it’s irresistible actually, and it turns out the band lifted the central riff from early-1980s MTV staple “In a Big Country.” Duh, Big Country, “Black Country,” ha ha, they’re toying with us. But the song is so likable, and its concision at just over three minutes is almost not enough – and I almost never say that when it comes to pop music. But OK, I’m still gearing up for either a Jesus and Mary Chain clone, or some Siltbreeze knockoff worshipping at the altar of Psychedelic Horseshit (the band, not the … judgment?). Instead, we get “Little April Showers.” Check it – this song. Yeah, the one from Bambi. Disney’s Bambi. Recorded fairly straight up. And recorded perfectly, much more warmly than “Black Country,” sounding like an old 45 from a 1950s vocal group in cardigans and loafers. It’s a weird transition, but it’s awesome. But it doesn’t help one bit in figuring these guys out.
Fortunately, we have press! Tonstartssbandht is brothers Andy and Edwin White, formerly of Orlando, Florida; Andy’s in school in Montréal, and Edwin splits time between there and New York City. They’ve played together or separately in other gleefully offbeat and strangely-named bands such as NASA, Buttsavage, Horus Hawk, Great Feelings, Superbud, Totally Dad, Black Dad / Andy Summers, and Bladestoner. (Personally, I think Great Feelings and Totally Dad are awesome band names.) (And speaking of dads, that’s apparently Mr. White on the cover.) In a strange but informative interview for the blog Weird Canada, the White brothers, responding to questions as some sort of quirky dual-consciousness superbeing, respond to a question about their intentions as such: “We can’t be concerned with maintaining some kind of sonic consistency for the sake of easy categorization, or just to please people with specific expectations of your [sic] sound. If it ends up being consistent, so be it. But it’s more important to create the sounds we want to hear as they reveal themselves to our consciousness.” Well isn’t that what every band sets out to do, grace the planet with a unique and interesting and self-pleasing sound? (Er…) The Whites, with An When, have proven that consistency really is irrelevant when charting this course, as the transition from “Black Country” to “Little April Showers” couldn’t be more jarring, yet decidedly pleasing.
The Beta Band comes to mind as a good touchstone for this approach, although their kitchen-sink ethos of amalgamating any and every style doomed certain recordings (like their self-titled follow-up to The Three EPs). And Tonstartssbandht even sound a bit like them in “5FT7,” the laid-back vocals occupying a lower register and complimenting the song, the lazy melody riding a drum machine throughout. The minute-long “Welsh Souper” charges Siltbreeze-style again, and I can only imagine the white noise of “Midnite Cobras,” the furthest it’s pushed on the album, fusing any filaments in my speakers together like a blowtorch. But the trick, again, is melody – each part of the song sounds like it could be its own chorus, until the track collapses under static in the middle, only to shift in even more delightful and esoteric directions.
By this point, it’s clear that the human voice is a crucial building block for the band, and even though their influences are obviously masters of instrument manipulation, as An When progresses, traditional instrumental sounds are slowly stripped away in favor of vocal and studio acrobatics. (Edwin White also records as Eola, a vocal sampling project.) “M’Old Jaep,” sandwiched between the light dance pop of “Andy Summers” (not sure how the guitarist for The Police figures into what they’re doing, but what the heck) and the Spacemen 3 re-creation “Walken with Jesus” (presumably “Walking” changed to “Walken” to differentiate between homage and straight cover – the tempo is sped up, the guitars stripped away, and vocals and Hammond dominate the mix), drops everything except for reverbed voice. And the final three tracks, “ORO” (which I find to be the only song I’m capable of skipping past), “Imenope,” and “Softly Kidding” are nothing but samples and loops with vocal performances of their onomatopaeic titles – the effect is enlightening in its possibilities. “Imenope,” for example, begins with (probably) one of the brothers quickly chanting “Imenemanimenemanope” at the beginning of a 4/4 bar, but by the time the voice drops out in the middle of the track and the slower chanting of what sounds like a church choir replaces it (it could very well be layer upon layer of the brothers’ own vocal tracks), whatever they’re actually singing sounds like a variation of the song title. If that’s not what they’re actually singing, that’s what you’ve been conditioned to hear. It’s really cool.
I highly recommend giving Tonstartssbandht a shot. They’re part of an exciting DIY scene that constantly pushes the boundaries of the definition of pop music, and their enthusiasm and excitement for the off-kilter bleeds through whatever limitations they’ve chosen to place on their recording techniques. Keep an eye on them.
RIYL: The Beta Band, Animal Collective, The Jesus and Mary Chain