Ladies Auxiliary My Side of the Mountain

[Self-Released; 2011]

Styles: casiotone
Others: Casiotone, The Clientele, Boat, Department of Eagles

It’s not easy to find a lot of written information on bandcamping trio Ladies Auxiliary, but they have cultivated themselves a charming Polaroid mythos — carpet tiles and folding chairs replete with sprigs of eBay-sourced electronics — that explain the group almost as well. On their debut, My Side of the Mountain, Ladies Auxiliary are scrubbing all sorts of unspoken floors. They have a song about being careful. Estranged friends have “turned so wrong.” Vocalist Colin Pate “keep[s] it shut because [he’s] not one of those guys”; he leads a “Practical Life.”

To which my first response was, well, yeah; me too, probably, despite what I happen to be doing at the moment, but why admit that on the first track of your first album? Don’t we like our coffee black and our art risqué? Don’t we know, eventually, the story of practicality? Over the course of the album, however, Ladies Auxiliary’s project unfolds just as elusively as their soundbite-proof story. The music — roughly, the sort of gorgeous casio/drum-machine-plus-slide-guitar swathes that Beach House perfected on their first album — smiles warmly at the cream in my coffee that no one else can see, on a Sunday that might otherwise be silent. Their album is available on Bandcamp for $3, closer to used-bin or stolen than the price-fixed and signed of yore. Ladies Auxiliary are, in other words, content to spritz into the void — they challenge the tacit ‘don’t try this at home’ producer vs. consumer neuroses and, as such, fall right in step with our cultural moment.

And on My Side of the Mountain, humility doesn’t sound like a story that’s been so well-explored. Something about Pate’s (character’s) handling of some guy asking his girl to dance — to drive him around — is so 50s-halcyon that it’s ominous: you keep waiting for the glove compartment to open. But if anything, the doormats carefully detailed here have long since been trampled and left behind by grander narratives. On “Black Hole,” Pate’s voice is a flickering match, while Jesse Moore echoes like he’s trapped inside a phonograph (if the cover of Department of Eagles’ “Golden Apple” is any indication, Moore picked up the ‘phonograph style’ from the best). The group avoids the most common trappings of 21st-century DIY synth-pop by paying huge attention to space. Part of this attention manifests in Tom Scheponik’s expertly-applied pedal steel, which gives most of Mountain a nice Midwestern halo, but the dynamic use of vocals is even more interesting. Pate’s cleft mumble acts as the album’s (somewhat crooked) axle, but new voices from unexpected directions are constantly scooping out fresh emotional spaces: as soon as the listener has “Practical Life,” with its lavish harmonies, pegged as a Postal Service nod, the tables spin and the group plops in a rough-cut call-and-response. The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel of all people makes an anonymous cameo on “Born Again.”

For an album that seems to be about vague loneliness and being left behind by friends who are Too Good For This Town, the presence of new voices popping up from all directions like whack-a-mole feels both communal and paradoxical. (The classic ‘answering machine instrumental’ presents disappointment in a stream as steady as its organs: “I dunno,” one relative grunts. “There isn’t a year that doesn’t go by”). Ladies Auxiliary like playing these tricks, tapping into whatever warmths they have access to at the most unexpected times. Those spread-fingered pentatonic arpeggios — moments of clarity, or synchronicity, surely — constitute a major motif on the album but seem to appear in the gaps between brooding and meaning-making: during “seems so tired,” the repeated conclusion of “A Sudden Walk”; during the non-event of “Ricky Says Hello” (the arpeggios here bursting out of an otherwise-withholding arrangement). The title of “Well, At Least…” gets its own aerial call, but try as I might, I cannot tell what Pate’s saying in that trailing ellipsis. Which I imagine is part of the point: normal, practical people still spend most of their time vacillating, and the only option for contentment is to tear one’s eyes and ears from the hanging ellipsis.

Curiously, the most exciting parts of My Side of the Mountain — the elements those eBay-sourced sprigs would have you waiting for — probably don’t take up more than a couple minutes on the album: Ladies Auxiliary’ve got some sick stitches, some high-end bubble wrap, in their intros and outros. “West Columbia” begins with a mesmeric heap of tape manipulations cut off by what sounds like the bowed cello from “Strawberry Fields Forever”; “Charity Girls” starts out sounding like a vintage coin-operated fortuneteller. They seem to have made a pact not to turn these dabbles into real songs, but said dabbles act as a quick nod in the direction of forward-thinking or ‘novel’ music, and for anyone eyeing the ellipsis with concerns about the group’s selfsimilarity (but again, take a look at the subway, take a look at your breakfast), those couple minutes say a lot for where they could be headed. I personally like My Side of the Mountain as a singular document, but moreover, if it teaches us anything about the group, it’s that (and only Pate’s voice could bring the mixture of pride and chagrin that I need here) they know a thing or two about pacing.

Links: Ladies Auxiliary

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