The For Carnation Promised Works

[Touch & Go; 2007]

Styles: molasses rock
Others: Slint, Smog, Will Oldham, Red House Painters, Yo La Tengo

Brian McMahan’s taped segment on the Thrill Jockey documentary DVD, Looking for a Thrill: An Anthology of Inspiration, is telling. He hums and haws for a minute, then explains not an inspirational lightning bolt of musical revelation but rather an unpretentious early reminiscence of discovering the pure enjoyment of playing music when he witnessed a makeshift jazz band on vacation as a kid. Besides imagining the strange juxtaposition of witnessing a “hep” combo in the cozy confines of a Disneyworld space age-themed family restaurant, one definitely gets the sense that, despite any notions of seriousness attached to his chosen genre (post-rock, math-rock) and peoples’ expectations because of his past membership in one of that genre's lynchpins (Slint), McMahan’s greatest enjoyment comes from the quest to find something adventitious through playing music with friends.

Time can heal all break-up wounds. McMahan’s first post-Slint releases as The For Carnation were two EPs -- 1995’s “Fight Songs” and 1996’s “Marshmallows” -- and although they were both received warmly, there was still always that inevitable “post-Slint” film covering them. Among my small peer group, there was plenty of praising and admonishing, but little rational brainwork. Luckily, the collected reissue of these two EPs as Promised Works gives everyone a chance to either hear these tracks for the first time or reassess what came after the big bang of Spiderland (and to a slightly lesser extent, Tweez).

The two longest songs here are the opening and closing shots, and for my money, they are the album’s best tracks. That there is barely anything to “Grace Beneath the Pines” is central to its appeal. It hobos its way along using scant whispers and sparse playing and feels like the ass is going to fall off of it at any minute. It is at once infuriating and compelling. “Preparing To Receive You” conjures up comparison to Yo La Tengo’s very long instrumental “I Heard You Looking.” It may just be one of my many turn-ons, but there are a number of songs out there with simple guitar riffs repeated for minutes and minutes that are, for some inexplicable reason, irresistible. “Preparing To Receive You” is one of those songs; any musician can presumably play it, but only McMahan can play it like that.

Elsewhere, “Salo” is a builder that has crunchy chords slashing slight vibes and contains one of the creepiest vocal performances McMahan has committed to tape. It doesn’t veer far from The For Carnation formula of cocking up textbook tempos, but it seems to work better than the many of the songs collected on Promised Works. “How I Beat the Devil” is a short burst of spastic guitarics but, sadly, ends just as your engine starts to warm. Overall, the clumps of goodness are there to ransack, but unfortunately the truly great finds are rare.

While Promised Works in not the definitive statement from this era, it is an important artifact from a time when post-rock’s veterans could still save the world, or at the very least save you from the misery of your family, your job, or your neighborhood. In The For Carnation, McMahan and various friends and future Tortoises venture into un-Slint-like pastures with mixed results. Others have done it frequently better (Bill Callahan, one-time McMahan sparring partner Will Oldham) but Promised Works is still worth checking out, or re-checking out with a fresh ear.

1. Grace Beneath the Pines
2. How I Beat the Devil
3. Get and Stay Get March
4. On the Swing
5. I Wear the Gold
6. Imyr, Marshmallow
7. Winter Lair
8. Salo
9. Preparing To Receive You

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