Alamo Race Track
Black Cat John Brown
ame a country, any country, and you can probably dilute their stereotypical musical sphere of influence into one or two words; Swedish pop, French disco, Brazilian Tropicalia. Some countries, however, defy such clichéd definitions. Alamo Race Track calls the Netherlands—a country better known for foreign backpackers and hedonistic merriment than its music—their home. Unfortunately, for fans of pigeonholing, Black Cat John Brown (the second album from this Amsterdam based four-piece) fails to shed any light on a would-be quintessential Dutch sound. Instead, it provides the listener with a schizophrenic mix of ‘60s melodies, straight-up indie rock, Flaming Lips’ cod psychedelia, post-punk delineation, and a dash of doo-wop and dub.
What’s initially striking is the starkness of the instrumentation. Not in an angular post-punk fashion with which we usually afford such adjectives, but in a melodic, individualistic sense—as if each instrument knows its part and sticks to it with an airy clarity. The structure, too, is deliberately delineated, as if each song was built architecturally: new instruments picking up where others left off as if there weren’t enough channels in the mixing board to carry them all at the same time.
Indicative of this idiosyncratic style is the album’s title track. Like a musical relay, each instrument passes the baton onto the next, crossing over for just a second, touching hands but never holding. It begins with a beatific finger picked acoustic guitar and minimalist clip-clop rhythm. Part beat poet, part lounge singer, it’s not hard to imagine singer, Ralph Mulder, snapping his fingers as he sings along (“Black Cat John Brown / You’re time will come / Big yellow eyes / Full moon is rising”). A bluesy guitar lick kicks in but is soon replaced by piano. The understated rhythm gives way to full drums, which in turn drop away to reveal crisp handclaps. Eventually the vocals cave in to a soaring chorus of “ah ah ah”s.
While the rest of the album fails to live up to the suave title track, it is, for the most part, impressive in pursuit. "Stanley vs. Hannah" juxtaposes a jaunty piano-propelled sing-along with eerie lyrical content (“Don’t trust the man with the creepy little eyes”). "Kiss Me Bar" is Byrdsian jangle pop at its best, which, like the title track, comes complete with handclaps. While, in contrast, intricate classical finger picking expertly accentuates the opening of “On the Beach.” The closing "Chocolate Years," is another about face. Dub in conception, a tremolo guitar and trombone dig out a repetitive mantra for Mulder to precariously balance atop of, promising: “I’ll take you away with me / From a life so cold.”
While the crisp, clear instrumental transitions helps certain songs stand out, the band’s more perfunctory tunes are also redeemed because of such shifts. As boredom begins to settle in on the spiky punk rock of “Northern Territory,” everything drops away to reveal an acoustic guitar accompanied by tambourine. It’s not shocking or serene, but it’s subtle enough to save a so-so song. Similarly, “The Killing” is catapulted from standard to sterling by a lone, breathy, Kim Gordon-esque female voice.
Yet, with such an array of influences on board, it’s easy to understand why Alamo Race Track won’t be putting Dutch music on the map. They take too liberally from their sources (The Sleepy Jackson's schizophrenic shuffle, the Coral's mix of Merseybeat and doo-wop) to be indicative of a national scene—stereotypical or otherwise. That they take these influences and strip them down, but keep a melodic sensibility, is an indication that the band could climb a little higher than the low-lying country in which they reside.
Reviewed by: Kevin Pearson
Reviewed on: 2007-07-31