ere we have folk music. Not just any type of folk music, though. This is folk music with an Eastern tinge to it, done by musicians in the deep American South. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The music of the people must be heard. In fact, it is thought that folk music specifically taps into the types of chord changes that have been around for longer than any others- ones that were the most obvious and easiest in earlier times.
Perhaps this is the rub, then. These chord changes are the most pleasing and obvious to the ear, evoking a sense of age to them. The Instruments tap these chords for their songs well. They play beautiful songs effortlessly. The verse, the bridge, the chorus- it’s all here. But, in effect, the fact that these chords have a certain age to them and the songs all contain the normal elements is a problematic one. One immediately is drawn to ask, “How do they do it better/different than anyone else that came before them?” The answer, unfortunately, is “Well, it’s not.”
These problems are immediately evident on the opening two tracks to the album. “Lullaby” starts with a gently plucked guitar and what sounds like a clarinet playing an Eastern tinged melody. The production is flawless, shifting the guitar and clarinet back and forth through the stereo channels, separating them nicely. The problem lies, mainly, in the downtrodden effect of the vocal and drum pattern. Sure, the song is a lullaby, but there is no reason for the vocals to contain no life and the drumming to sound as if it is a chore to lift the sticks off the skins. The song goes on for three minutes but barely changes tempo or tenor throughout making the song have an unnecessary narcotic effect. This is the effect that you may want to have for a lullaby, surely, but not the one that you want to have for the opener to an album.
On “Song for Thomas” the narcotic effect continues in the slowly played piano and guitar melodic figure that opens the song. When Heather McIntosh’s vocals enter into the song the effect becomes complete once again.
While Billions of Phonographs contains a large number of instruments, ideas, and heart, it lacks one of the most important elements of any record: energy. Whether this energy can be used towards an urgency within the music, an insistence on repetition, or flat out rock and roll is the choice of the artist. On this release, the Instruments seem both devoid of any energy and innovation, making this record merely nice and nowhere near essential or interesting.