Bracken We Know About…

[Anticon; 2007]

Styles: versatile electro-acoustic
Others: Hood, The Berg Sans Nipple, Animal Collective, Nudge, Grizzly Bear

Anticon’s release of new material from long-time acquaintances Bracken signals an even more pronounced step away from traditional hip-hop into electronic-acoustic music for the Oakland-based label. Bracken write with a panoply of synths and drum machines, varying in age and quality, but they’re clever enough to make tracks where the assorted pieces of equipment both compete and complement each other with a certain damaged elegance. Even better, they achieve that elegance without letting the record become too pretty or uniform: a generous musical vocabulary enables each song to speak with both a familiar voice and novel inflections. As a result, We Know About the Need canters by in a swift, vigorous 45 minutes.

“Safe Safe Safe” collates some of the more popular elements of contemporary indie rock. The chanted, choral vocals, cyclical delay, bold string arrangement, and surplus melodies from xylophones and synthesizers (all packed into strings of inspiring crescendos that break near the ¾ mark) evoke Islands, Grizzly Bear, Broken Social Scene, The Arcade Fire or…. These are maneuvers that have become more and more conventional in the last 3-5 years, but can still be captivating when executed as competently as they are here.

Bracken don’t stay long in the leftfield-power-pop mode, however. After an ethereal one-minute interlude, they gnash their way through “Evil Teeth,” the least structured track, the one that sounds like the kid who is in love with machines deciding to turn them all on at once, spin several knobs all the way to the right and then sing through the din. His drummer friend is there to help complicate things. The frenzy calms, and then a handful of gothic drones mourn over each other while a lonely organ line stutters in the background. It’s a brave song that shucks the skilled pastiche of the rest of the record in favor of more hazardous experimentation. I hope the band uses it as a point of departure for new material.

Bracken’s Chris Adams claims that his recording process results in “a lot of square pegs … being forced into round holes,” but that’s not something that’s really audible on this release. What you can hear is ubiquitous evidence of his enthusiasm for various stripes of electronica: in addition to the poppy and noisy moments cited above, We Know About the Need bears significant traces of drone, ambient, and instrumental hip-hop (and I’m guessing that “La Monte’s Lament” is a LaMonte Young reference.) Bracken is clearly a band made up of avid listeners that seem to pay as much attention to sonic diversity as they do to adroit songwriting. That’s a virtue that makes We Know About the Need a pleasurable listen and has me hoping the group will remain curious enough to explore even more new voices for itself in future works.

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