(Post-Consumer Records, 2013)
Did you ever think the sound of an acoustic guitar’s tuning peg cranking a stubborn old string was cool? How about the sound of a hammer on piano wire? (Not the note, the sound of the hammer actually hitting the wire.) Or the reverberations left over long after a note has been struck, the disintegration of tone, the relatively gradual degradation of musical contribution into ambient noise? What happens to the sound? If you’re like me, you can’t find out soon enough. And hey, lucky us – in the hands of Bad News from Houston, all of these questions are ripe for exploration and expansion.
There are so many possibilities once the traditional ideas of music making are set aside, and even when limiting yourself to some strict compositional rules, as Bad News from Houston does on In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder, the results can be quite astounding. The band, a duo comprised of Deerhoof’s John Dieterich and Tsigoti’s Thollem McDonas, has been collaborating for years, but here they’ve broken new ground. Perhaps indebted to their time spent in the Mike Watt–featuring The Hand to Man Band, whose abstract self-titled album I had a surprisingly hard time getting into (but honestly, don’t look into it any further than that), McDonas and Dieterich spend their time reveling in the tactility of their instruments. They’ve allowed themselves nothing more than acoustic guitar and piano on which to perform, but the space and the studio were fair game, and they use it to great advantage as cavernous echoes and sampled tones are as equally important as the notes actually played.
And heck, for such a “difficult” approach, it sounds a lot more like fun than an academic exercise.
Still, “Confuse the Ghosts” hurts my body. The initial plinks and plunks remind me of the Ghostbusters scene in which Peter Venkman investigates Dana Barrett’s apartment for paranormal activity, and as he moves past the piano he tickles the high notes to perturb the spirits, remarking about them, “They hate it when you do this.” (I will always, always throw in a Ghostbusters reference when I can.) That impression doesn’t last terribly long, though; after an inaudible voice speaks, the guitar and piano hammer away at an insane riff, a seemingly random one at first, but one that quickly reveals a panicked sense of purpose. Album opener “Changery” is a different monster altogether, though. The pulsing tones that begin the song hint at some sort of electronic hybrid, but before you know it they’re replaced by heavily strummed/hammered guitar and piano. The actual strike of the chords on the downbeat is used as a percussive instrument in itself, following a weighty rhythm until the denouement, during which the guitar honky-tonks out a bit, dancing over the piano part like it’s fed up with moping around. It’s a beautifully rendered piece, restrained, and perfect for highlighting how Bad News from Houston works together.
The twin mid-album suites “Make It Fall” and “Middle Man Problems” showcase the duo’s virtuosity, as they careen throughout styles, accelerating and pulling back with ease, shifting and crashing but with a precise sense of direction. On each track, McDonas and Dieterich manhandle their instruments, and yet are so keen on capturing the ambience of their surroundings that their cacophonous passages sometimes sound more controlled than the quieter ones, where the room is allowed to manifest itself as its own instrument, inserting its contributions in unexpected ways. The players’ react to it and each other, and a sort of jazz performance ensues, and whether that magic happens in the moment of recording or later in production and editing is left up to the listener to figure out. It’s not easy. And it’s mainly unnecessary when there’s so much else to think about.
On the absolute flipside of that is “Invisible River,” a dream state of plucks and plinks and ambient noise, penetrated halfway through by a lullaby of hushed music-box melody set against chirping crickets and nightingales. It’s a gorgeous respite.
Look, it would be so easy to just describe every song to you, but that would defeat the purpose of actually listening to the album and letting it surprise you over and over, which it should be allowed to do. There are so many geeky little pieces and parts that I don’t want to leave out – I keep listening to Cloudbuilder, and on every runthrough something new and exciting sticks out that I hadn’t noticed the first time. If that’s not the mark of a fantastic record, I don’t know what is. So instead I’ll leave you with the video for “Red Dirt Meet,” a stop-motion animated … love story? Or something? The wire-taut playing is a pretty great accompaniment to the bizarre visuals. There are computers and loneliness. Is that meat or something? The ceiling collapses. Then there are two of them. The heck? …
RIYL: The Hand to Man Band, Drainolith, Tsigoti