Friday, 12 June 2009

Farms in Trouble – ‘The Gas Station Soundtrack’

“A kaleidoscopic patchwork of songscraps and fidelities from shimmering pop-folk psychedelia to clattering basement caveman rock…from Beefheart to the White Album to early Guided By Voices.”

The above quote is an extract from a zany press-release accompanying the debut full-length of the Milwaukee based Farms in Trouble and for once here is an album that makes such bold comparisons seem not only justified but almost an understatement. ‘The Gas Station Soundtrack’ does indeed have shades of Beefheart eccentricity, the broad stylistic range of the Beatles’ White Album and employs a lo-fi recording technique similar to Guided By Voices but more than that the band have a personality and charm all of their own. Though largely the work of song-writing duo Zach Pieper and Riles Walsh, the cover lists a total of nine players whose instrumental credits range from the traditional guitar, bass, drums etc. to ‘bike spokes’, ‘static’, ‘junk’ and curiously: ‘enthusiasm’.

By squeezing 27 tracks into a concise 42 minutes it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the album to be overly fragmented and lacking in focus. Actually the opposite is true; the brief song lengths (longest 2:36, shortest a mere 22 seconds) allow the band to trim the fat while keeping all the flavour and though the disc hops from one genre to the next each new track seems perfectly sequenced to follow on from the last. With so many mini-masterpieces to choose from singling out favourites can prove a challenge. The band’s unique approach to recording and mixing means that repeated listens reveal new layers of detail, such as the droning organ chords of ‘Empty Arrows & Exit Signs’ and snippets of sampled dialogue that litter the cut-and-paste sound collage of ‘Guilty Science’. ‘Like a Needle in Heaven’ is about the most perfect piece of jangling sing-song pop I’ve heard in a long time, almost as good is ‘The Open Range’ whose upbeat rhythmic drumming will surely make it a live favourite. The aforementioned ‘bike spokes’ make their appearance on ‘Stick Man Bugs Out’ which sounds a little like some of Beck’s early lo-fi experiments. Further hints of Beck show up in the retro keyboards and hip-hop beats of ‘Many Boss Levels’. Pieper and Walsh’s quirky sense of humour is apparent throughout many of the lyrics and song titles like ‘Tigerlilly Pillowfighter’. The humour can also be tinged with darkness as in the ghostly guitar strums and lonely lament of ‘No Free Rides’. The quality remains consistently high right through to the end; penultimate track ‘Pleasure Dome’ is one of the best with driving drum beats, snaking guitar noodles and sighing vocal harmonies while the final ‘Auto-Biography’ is a brief and bittersweet voice and keyboard closer. These 10 songs along with 17 others make this probably the best album I had the good fortune to discover in 2008. Current edition is in cd-r format and limited to 200 copies.

On a side note ‘The Gas Station Soundtrack’ was released through ‘Activities Recordings’, a Milwaukee based collective of like-minded musicians. Most members of Farms in Trouble also play in a number of other bands under this banner and the 25 track ‘Activities Compilation Vol.1’ is a great (and, at $5, cheap) way to sample their considerable talents.

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