Tonstartssbandht Overseas

[Arbutus; 2014]

Styles: psychedelia, live tour, road trip rock
Others: Eola, Andy Boay, Racc-oo-oon, Dirty Beaches

Tonstartssbandht (“ton-starts-bandit”) have never fit into a simple schema. Six years and counting as a band and it seems increasingly improbable that the duo of Edwin and Andy White ever will. Their music is a hybrid of what they call “psychedelic boogie rock” and a sort of heady sonic mischief that people could probably lazily call noise pop. But they are much more diverse than that: within each record that they’ve released lay faithful homages, blown-out stabs at odd pop, folksy campfire stomps, vocal loop experiments, and moments of great self-effacing humor. Their catalog plays like the work of an unfocused but charismatic pet project, because for the most part, that’s what they are.

Overseas is a record of Tonstartssbandht’s 2013 European tour and a signal boost for the group’s capabilities as a live band. Renowned in private but scarcely heard en masse, Overseas rectifies this overlooked dynamic with an engrossing sampler of their spirited onstage chemistry. The album’s material is culled from different performances across Europe, a schizophrenic director’s cut of originals and covers from a tour tumescent with artful abandon. From the opening notes of “Alright Medley,” the album inculcates a ceaseless momentum and promises a wealth of mellifluous, skillfully played rock tropes, a promise it keeps with aplomb.

Andy describes the songwriting process for the band in Interview as such:

I will sometimes just sit down and let some technical aspect of my set-up, like a certain effect or a sort of reaction I’m getting from the route of my signal… inspire something spontaneous. Other times I’ll carry around ideas for a while… I think that results in the same themes, including lyrics line for line, sort of recurring in a lot of our songs… Sometimes people will be like, “You used the same line! The same melody is repeated.” [But] I think it adds to a larger cohesion.

In context of albums like An When or (the hilariously titled) Dick Nights, this quote speaks to the intractable, perverse inspiration that blossoms in the odd space between human input and generative process, where each slipped beat or layered chant might accidentally unearth a path to new and divine musical treasure. The group’s studio experiments (as well as their cerebral solo projects) are indeed a wellspring of cool ideas, diverse enough to spur a “you don’t really know what they sound like” debate, but not so scatterbrained to make the Whites seem noncommittal. And that’s great, except that Overseas is all live, and in a live setting, you don’t have access to an endless canvas to splay ideas over; you have a stage and a crowd and all its concomitant creative hindrances. Therefore, preserving that esoteric duality of strangeness and charm while still keeping a live audience’s attention calls for something more visceral.

In this vessel, the iconic live double album, Tonstartssbandht operate as a guitar-and-drums duo, assisted with a few pedals and vocal effects. This actually proves to be a beautifully beneficial constraint: on record, the music they make is often imprecise, dense, and too difficult to translate to a stage without the use of samplers and sonic tricks that risk compromising the duo’s aesthetic. Instead of trying to emulate those sounds exactly, they choose a more tactile approach, one afforded to them by way of their prodigious musicianship.

Playing with a simpler palette of sounds, the group rework their disparate album cuts into a captivating rock travelogue, stripping songs to their cores; blending in covers from Amon Düül, The Rolling Stones, Pat Metheny, Steppenwolf, and more; and smartly editing down dozens of live versions from scattered venues in Europe to a brilliantly sequenced baton race of opiatic grooves.

“Dad / Skyline / Olde Feelings,” for example, is built first as a pastoral folk arpeggio à la “Black Mountain Side” in a slow accumulation of propulsive mid-tempo chatter, but comes crashing apart in a lumbering breakdown. In its fading seconds, it ekes out a sort of wistful melody, and in turn, “Midnite Cobras / Welsh Souper” picks up the pace with a groove not identical to before, but bearing an uncanny similarity. Not in exactness but in significant gestures is how Tonstartssbandht’s music is felt; there is an endearing quality to the ease with which they shift genres and tones, how they garnish their own stunning songcraft with “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” or “The Pusher” without breaking stride. And then they write songs with names like “Preston ‘Great-Ass’ Imfat” and come off as utterly affable. It’s a peculiar kind of fraternal creativity, grown from years of wood-shedding in hot Florida rooms, playing along to old records and patiently learning their nuances. The interplay of the brothers is the poetry of a truly special idioglossia, like siblings raised in captivity who were only allowed to listen to James Gang Rides Again.

With each subsequent riff, the brothers strike with jazzy provocation at the fabric of their canon, allowing their minds to wander and discover new patterns beneath. Andy intones a million little differences on his voice, on the rhythms, on his guitar; he bleats and growls and hollers, nurturing happy mistakes, while Ed knits a tapestry of proggy fills, risky tempo changes, and spiraling vocal lines that intertwine beautifully. When a song bores the brothers, they implode it, and a more eager, more deserving take is supplanted. Some stretch past 10 minutes, and some are truncated to mere seconds. This results in a hyperactive survey of modern rock, a visionary document, celebratory hymns of irreverent jam-gibberish bolstered by really unerringly fun rock & roll. And sure enough, the considerable album length is thwarted — a larger cohesion emerges.

It’s fairly telling that the band’s biggest hit so far is a mangled take on Big Country’s biggest hit; even though it takes the fairly inoffensive original and mutates it into a sunburned anthem of arresting distortion, it still feels somehow close, and familiar, as if communicating some bleary memory. In a lot of ways, these two are innate collagists; less straightforward psych-rockers than human samplers of rock history, reshaping their idolatry with an imagination as impatient as their practicing is studious. This music lives in stretches of highway, in humid air in hot cars, filling up with warm echoes; monastic ululations that contort into singsong Pet Sounds harmonies and back out into motorik catharsis. Florida forests manifest in the music along with Brooklyn’s colorful clutter, and a bit of Montreal too, since Andy lives up there now.

Tonstartssbandht’s music is always pushing forward, unwavering and self-assured, with a spastic disposition and a vice grip on talent, an exciting exotic strain of pleasure-center rock that sounds and feels like pure motion.

Links: Tonstartssbandht - Arbutus

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