Expert Alterations gets snappy, Flandrew Fleisenberg gets atmospheric
Since the British Invasion of the ’60s, listeners have noticed that often, British singers sound like they are American; linguists explain this partially by pointing out that the physical activities of singing and speaking are different, and singing can smooth out accents toward the more general, neutral American accent.
Listening to the self-titled EP from the Baltimore trio Expert Alterations without prior knowledge about the group, one might waffle between deciding that the members are Americans or British people sounding like Americans.
That’s not only due to the vocals, provided by guitarist Patrick Teal, but also the pop style, which owes more than a tip of the hat to certain mid-’80s British acts—some of which were lumped into the “C86” category, named after the influential NME compilation cassette—but without the dated recording styles that sometimes infected those recordings.
Originally issued as a self-released cassette last year, this 5-song EP is now available as a one-sided 12-inch record on Slumberland Records or as a digital download on Kanine Records, and what immediately grabs the listener is its snappy sense of economy, without a morsel of fat.
Its jangly, ringing guitars, bright bass lines and jittery, bustling drumbeats are precise but not perfect, and the casually drifting vocal intonation on “Midnight Garden” makes it clear that Autotune was not used here.
Like the flawless 82-second C86 opener “Velocity Girl” by Primal Scream, the first track “Venetian Blinds” seems to make a pointed statement by being less than 90 seconds long, leaving the listener to want to hear it again, immediately.
The lyrics are hard to discern with the vocals possibly low in the mix on purpose, and the final number, “Three Signs,” borrows heavily from the science fiction novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick, which ruminates if an “interesting illusion” is better than a “miserable reality.”
Perhaps it is fitting for this song, informed by classic indie-pop, to reference a book that contemplates artificiality—the “three signs” being various prosthetics—but for this writer, any negative thoughts of possible appropriation are overshadowed by the group’s invigorating spark, delivered with its own voice.
For an unconventional percussionist like Flandrew Fleisenberg, it’s important to be distinguished in his broad field, which typically involves either the use of found objects or the use of novel techniques to play “normal” drums and percussion instruments.
Arguably there has been unconventional (if perhaps unintentional) percussion since the dawn of man, and there are numerous figures in the avant-garde from Ben Bennett to Z’EV; even theater troupes like Stomp and the Blue Man Group have brought it to mainstream audiences. What Fleisenberg has managed to do on his latest solo percussion album Crash is to impart his own musical personality in his playing in several notable, distinguished ways.
The listener can sense that he is constantly adjusting, unafraid to start with a sound technique and then tweak it to coax out as much variation in timbre as possible. Fleisenberg also has a sense of structure to his performances, with an understanding of space and transitions between sounds. And, most important to this writer is the ability to generate atmospheres where imaginations can run free.
Take for example, the track “Window,” on which Fleisenberg creates eerie squeaks by scraping a window frame. When his noises bounce between low frequencies and high, piercing shrieks, this writer imagines a violent dialogue between two abstracted individuals: a calm, cold punisher and his victim of torture (to all you armchair psychologists out there: go ahead, do your worst).
Other listeners may hear a scene that isn’t so sinister. Other listeners may not even make it through the track, with occasional sounds that are like nails on a chalkboard.
On “Spinning Cymbal” Fleisenberg spins cymbals (surprise surprise) on the floor until they come to rest, but what unfolds isn’t just random clatter; Fleisenberg allows the cymbals to succumb to gravity in various ways, eventually dropping them halfway through the piece with crashing sounds and then generating churning rapids.
The complex “Wall” features aggressive scrapes that resemble barking, followed by nuanced work on a drum head using his hands, rattles with subtly changing timbres and balls rolling in metal bowls. The mood needle on Crash swings wildly, from meditative moments to agonizing screeches to the restless scampers of an artist constantly exploring.