In speaking with audio restoration engineer Michael King a few years ago about some of the archival releases on Reel Recordings (his jazz and progressive rock imprint), he said the goal of the label was to present music in which the emotional qualities were never compromised by recording medium or recording quality. In other words, the power of music should be able to come through, even if the sounds are committed to cheap tape with a room mic or are captured live in a space in which the instruments are off balance. Certainly things can be done to bring up levels and so forth, but one has to rely on a bit of ‘feel’ and a bit of faith that the residue of an experience is really there. If you can’t hear all of what Sal Mosca is doing on the piano behind Lee Konitz’ saxophone on a 1950s broadcast performance, you have to trust the music.
All this is to say that, as humorous as it might be, the connotations of the term “shit-fi” aren’t entirely apt, and that furthermore one shouldn’t have anything to fear by the fact that Columbus, Ohio trio Times New Viking (Beth Murphy, keyboards and voice; Adam Elliott, drums and voice; Jared Philips, guitar) entered Columbus Discount Recording and Musicol Recording to wax Dancer Equired, their fifth record and first for Merge. To be sure, this isn’t a high fidelity or ‘overly produced’ record; the group only wipes a little of the grit left over from previous entries. What sticks out about TNV over the last six years is that not only is the feel of their recordings part of the musical landscape (kind of like the wheel grind on old Mountain Goats records, only less cloying), but also that their records are much more generally textural than perhaps given credit for. Part of that can be credited to the general hissy atmosphere pervading the records from Siltbreeze to now, and part of that is because they haven’t historically been a ‘singles’ band anyway. That’s not to say that they don’t have hooks or aren’t writing catchy, vibrant compositions, but that standout tracks are more like interesting contours in an environment — “popping out” — rather than able to exist without a greater context.
Dancer Equired consists of 14 tracks, beginning on high with “It’s a Culture,” somehow connoting a grip of blues, yellows, and oranges as much as the vocals and instruments are in the red. That said, intricacy pervades the alternately fuzz-gunned and slick guitar work of Philips against top-heavy drums (rushed tempos being an interesting hallmark of the TNV approach) and ever slightly out-of-tune vocal “harmonies.” At just over two minutes, this wistful little pop symphony and its attendant gaudy knots are gone as quickly as they appear. There’s a dirty-needle, worn acetate quality to “Ever Falling in Love,” dryly stripped-down insistence supporting intertwined vocal parallels, unsure of whether they are commenting on or talking over one another. “No Room to Live” provides a bit of shoegaze jangle, Murphy channeling her inner Beth Anderson toward a vision of roughly hewn poise with the charm of tape warble adding soft imperfections.
A rare plod imbues “Downtown Eastern Bloc,” the guitarist’s repeating near-shimmer enveloped by a warmly cotton-mouthed chant. At over three and a half minutes, it’s downright epic. “Don’t Go to Liverpool” finds a sweet spot with brilliantly out-of-tune vocals (to the point of absurdity) and an ambling keyboard bounce giving the tune a seasick wander contrasted brightly by the fist-pumpingly frantic “Fuck Her Tears.” Sure, some tracks seem more nondescript or paler than these, but that’s kind of like saying several bars in the middle of a Richard Youngs piece are “inessential.” Everything has a reason, and you’d miss what doesn’t stand out if it weren’t there. Dancer Equired is a fine and mature next entry in the growing catalog of three of Columbus’ finest.