Axis of Evol
tephen McBean’s debut turn as a solo artist—2004’s eponymous Pink Mountaintops album—was a sordid, sloppy record, filled with twisted sex rants and baggy classic rock exercises. Songs started too early, seemingly out of order, possibly unfinished. Pink Mountaintops was imperfect in every way, but it cleared a path for last year’s Black Mountain debut, a tighter, focused group effort that nonetheless adopted McBean’s stoned, loose aesthetic. It was a “better” record than the Pink Mountaintops disc, but it didn’t feel like a finished product so much as a particularly lucid jam session.
This is an important distinction, because there’s a lot of goodwill to be gained by those artists willing to avoid the Big Statement album. And consciously or not, this seems to be McBean’s M.O. Axis of Evol marks McBean’s third “full-length” release in less than two years, arriving barely a year after Black Mountain put him on the indie map and into stadiums, opening for Coldplay.
Coldplay made strange bedfellows for McBean and Black Mountain for more than just the obvious reasons: in terms of releasing material and appealing to fans, Coldplay are a consummate Statement band, with years between albums and meticulously arranged pieces. Consciously or not, McBean seems content releasing records charming for their ramshackle flaws.
As such, Axis of Evol will hit shelves without unnecessary hype; if the album bombs, fans can be reasonably sure the McBean will take another shot in the near future. And if the indie-rific pun in the album’s title hadn’t already clued you in, Axis of Evol is no grand statement, but rather another scratched, crooked work, seven more tracks of McBean whimsy.
Pink Mountaintops is quickly getting a rep as McBean’s “folk” side-project, an undeserved distinction in the first place, and one that should be permanently buried after Axis. Because while McBean is more likely to grab a guitar and ferment all solo-like here than on a Black Mountain album, most of Axis focuses on the indie-cum-classic rock musings that fueled Black Mountain. It’s a fine thing, too, because when McBean does slow the tempo and strip the arrangements, he fails to muster the sex and narcotics buzz that his louder work emits.
If anything, Black Mountain showed us that McBean’s voice is kinetic, gaining complexity and character as he settles into a healthy groove. McBean solidifies this idea on the chunky “Cold Criminals” and the relentless “Lord Let Us Shine.” And, already having proven himself to be the most effective lyrical plagiarist since Bobby Gillespie, McBean recycles the past with simple, evocative statements, forcing the brunt of the album’s weight on his steely pipes and droning arrangements.
It’s a fine strategy, except when things go static. “Comas,” “Slaves,” and “How We Can Get Free” all languish in lessened tempos, their flaws exacerbated by increased run-times and a doped McBean who seems to Xerox Jason Pierce’s sneer for the gummed-up numbers.
None of these tracks are complete misses—“How Can We Be Free” is a consummate album closer, and “Comas” is fine acoustic fancy—but they don’t ignite the passion and excitement of McBean’s more ambitious tracks. Of course, it’s tough to fault McBean; calculated or otherwise, Axis feels less like a pure artistic statement and more like an abbreviated LP, a temporary home for McBean’s druggy, gyrating ghosts.
Axis is ultimately endearing because like McBean’s past work, it brings out an almost maternal quality in listeners: its flaws so obvious, its missteps so adorable that it’s hard not to want to step in and set it straight. Re-sequence. Lop off droning minutes. Mix the drums higher. Axis contains obvious blemishes, but its familiarity ensures that it never truly frustrates. Axis is an easygoing, engaging listen, an album whose relative triviality easily forgives its flaws.