Album Review / Mariage Blanc / Undercurrents

Words by Ricky

Rumors of a new My Bloody Valentine album dominate indie rock news clippings yearly. If you’ve been keeping track, it’s 23+ years since Loveless graced our ears (and emptied Creation Record’s wallet). By all means, Kevin Shields, take your time! Amazing whammy-bar-dive-bombs don’t record themselves–it may take a few thousand tries to nail’em down. Yeah it’s annoying, but there’s something admirable in perfecting a work of art for a weirdly long period of time–be it a never-gonna-be-released album, a novel, or even that adorable mural for your new baby’s bedroom wall (advice: the mural looks fucking creepy). Patience and perfection are two fitting attributes of Mariage Blanc. They just released Undercurrents, their first recording since 2010′s self-titled album. A few months ago the guys claimed that their new tunes radically differed from past efforts. I thought, yeah, sure, whatever (with asshole-like sarcasm). Turns out they weren’t kidding–this is new, yet welcome, territory for the Pittsburgh indie poppers.

Anyone who’s gotten drunk in close proximity to the Brillobox jukebox has overheard the music of Mariage Blanc (bonus points if a band member sits in the room when one of their songs plays). The band began dabbling in orchestral pop in 2007. I say, “pop” because of melody-soaked tunes that fell somewhere between a less-suicidal Elliot Smith and Summerteeth-heavy Wilco (complete with tucked-in shirts and nice sweaters and stuff–just like Wilco–at least in their healthier, more-recent years). I say “orchestral” because a boatload of talented folks took part. Around the release of 2008’s Broken Record EP, both a trumpeter (Jeff Baker) and cellist (Liam Cooney) crammed onstage with (up to) three guitarists (Matt Ceraso, Josh Kretzmer, Baker), a keyboardist (Sam McUmber), a bassist (Josh Dotson), and drummer (originally Jeff Ryan until Chris Williams joined) complete with mandatory sleigh bells. Oh, and both Josh K and Matt sang (and Sam handled backing vocals)–so harmonies galore! A wholesome six-member “mariage” lasted until the long months (years?) slaving over 2010’s self-titled full length. The album gained some well-deserved press, but it was an epic recording process, so by the time it finally reached our ears, the guys shifted their studio to a more-secluded Braddock and continued writing.

Their long-term keyboardist quit in 2011, but the group soldiered on with a few gigs as a four-piece. The more-straightforward instrumentation forced the listener (“the listener” meaning me) to further-appreciate ALLLL the nuances: the integral guitar licks, killer bass lines (more on those later), etc (plus they rocked a bit more, which was fun). Soon their drummer handed his sleigh bells in and joined the Marines…I know…fuckin’ drummers. Now, three, yes three remain–it’s like a horror movie…people dying off left and right.

It’s obvious that the collaborative songwriting on Undercurrents began waaay before Chris left for basic training. His steady yet forceful rhythm (with a few Radiohead-esque electronic bleeps and blops) powers every song. The guys also abandoned the routine guitar/bass/drum setup and sprang for washes of synths, electric keyboards, and studio effects–so the end result more resembles a studio creation than a band playing live in a room. Because of this, at first listen, the songs sorta mimic the stuff you’d hear while shopping at H&M or Banana Republic: moody indie rock songs covered in electronic spunk. If that scares you, don’t worry. There’s a mature, classic dream pop quality to these songs, and after a few listens, the meticulously layered arrangements sit a bit better in your mind.

The opener, “In At Dark,” combines every instrument mentioned in the previous paragraph. Layers of guitars twinkle in and out of the mix with lots of start-stop drums throughout—things never feel cluttered though. The build-up in the second half is fit for a New Order-obsessive dance party.

Then there’s the title track, which may list as the darkest thing they’ve ever written. The song feels dangerously close to erupting into madness, but they keep the motorik-like pace under control–mostly thanks to the bass guitar. Yes, the bass guitar! Dotson’s bass playing is the star of the show, not only on this song, but through the whole EP. It acts as the leader, the ringmaster of sorts, keeping everything in line. The lead bass parts free the guitarists to find more interesting things to do, and oh do they! The best example of this double-guitar interplay is throughout last track, “Dear Bones”; perhaps my favorite of the bunch (the melodies won’t leave your head for a few days).

Matt and Josh’s easy-going vocal melodies have always been both charming and suave, but if I had one qualm, it would be how the vocals SOUND on this EP. They’re a bit too embellished, too “perfect,” and quite frankly, the reverby post-production vocal effects can be a bit distracting at times. I do understand the need for a more “dreamier” overall sound, which is why, ultimately, I’d like to hear these tunes live. Add the clouds of cigarette smoke, beer glass clanging, the random crowd screams, and the occasional mysterious fart smells to create a more-human environment far from the constant knob-tweaking studio.

Instrumentally the band knows how they’re supposed to sound, and as always, they nail it. They record by themselves with no unnecessary producers, though I dig the inclusion of Chad Clark handling post-production duties. I don’t know what all he did, but I’ve argued for years that both of Clark’s predominant bands, Smart Went Crazy and The Beauty Pill, were two of the most underrated D.C. bands ever. In fact, stop what you’re doing and Youtube search “D.C. Will Do That To You” parts 1 and 2 by Smart Went Crazy…genius songwriting, right?

Full disclosure: it’s difficult to write a review for a band that you’re friends with. It’s always easy to list the positives, but criticism is a bit trickier. Fortunately this album doesn’t need much tweaking. These tracks take multiple listens to fully explore, so if you already haven’t devoted the time, don’t be a fool. Whether there’s 7 or 4 or 3 members in the band, Mariage Blanc remains relevant to the local music scene (though let’s not drop the member count below 3, guys). I hope they eventually get back to playing shows again*, but for now, they’re an unpredictable and exciting studio band, and I’m pumped to hear what’s to come. For now, there’s Undercurrents.

Mariage Blanc on the webz:

* Here’s where I was going to include footage of Matt getting bitten on-stage by a random friend at an older MB show. I decided against it, though in hindsight, the end video was totally worth the three dollars I spent to make it happen.

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