The Paper Chase Someday This Could All Be Yours, Vol. 1

[Kill Rock Stars; 2009]

Styles: noise-pop, horror music
Others: Xiu Xiu, The Planet The, evil version of The Arcade Fire

Even if you've never heard any of The Paper Chase's previous four full-length efforts, chances are very good that you've been touched by frontman John Congleton's musical abilities already. When not indulging his creative id with this band, Congleton is a highly accomplished producer/engineer, with his hands in an incredible number of great releases over the past decade. In fact, through only the first half of 2009, he's lent his talents to great albums from St. Vincent, Bill Callahan, and The Thermals.

It should come as no surprise, then, that it's taken three years for Someday This Could All Be Yours, Vol. 1, the follow-up to The Paper Chase's last release, Now You Are One of Us. As you might assume from the title, this return is actually only the first of two installments in a conceptual project of songs focused on natural disasters. (Vol. 2 is due in 2010.) Despite the passage of time, this thematic choice evidences a continuity throughout The Paper Chase catalog, namely a preoccupation with human suffering, or, as the subtitle of the album's closing track would have it, "the human condition."

It's an ambitious undertaking, no doubt, but one that the band's chops are ideally suited to. New drummer Jason Garner pounds his kit with absolute control and near godly power, enhanced by Congleton's skills at the recording console. Resonant with the overarching concept, the songs ebb and flow with the intermittent ferocity and creepy calm that defines moments of devastation, yet Garner's thunderous percussion holds it all together. Opening track "If Nobody Moves Nobody Will Get Hurt (The Extinction)" establishes this pattern, beginning with the foreboding low of muffled, distorted vocals and horror-movie organ before drums and bass arrive with great bombast. Later moments of thoughtfully rendered piano and strings make for something almost anthemically uplifting, if it weren't so obviously weighed down by destructive power.

Yet, in the very success of this formula, I can't help but find something a bit lacking. I can dig on a negative worldview myself at times, especially as expressed through art, but it feels incomplete without some sort of counterbalance. This is expertly crafted music, but perhaps too intent on being discomforting: the music intentionally aims to unsettle you. Congleton's voice may be the most obvious source of this, with its unapologetically nasal emoting sounding sometimes like Conor Oberst's, but the instrumentation too is overwhelming, never throwing the listener a life-preserving melodic hook or overtly clever lyric.

Undoubtedly, these qualities may be sought after by many listeners, but for me, the totality of the album is oppressive. It's a tough pill to swallow, but it's supposed to be. No wonder they're giving us a year between installments.

1. If Nobody Moves Nobody Will Get Hurt (The Extinction)
2. I'm Going to Heaven With or Without You (The Forest Fire)
3. The Common Cold (The Epidemic)
4. The Laying of Hands the Speaking of Tongues (The Mass Hysteria)
5. Your Money or Your Life (The Comet)
6. What Should We Do With Your Body (The Lightning)
7. This Is a Rape (The Flood)
8. The Small of Your Back The Nape of Your Neck (The Blizzard)
9. This Is Only a Test (The Tornado)
10. We Have Ways to Make You Talk (The Human Condition)

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