Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Aug. 18, 2004
William S. Burroughs might be pleased to know that, nearly a decade after his death, Lawrence, Kansas still permeates an air of cool, having acted as a mid-wife (alongside “The Christus House and The Shop” of Boonville, Missouri) in the birth of Minus Story’s third effort, the bizarrely titled The Captain is Dead, Let the Drum Corpse Dance.
The title of the quartet’s latest opus, though, is not the only part of the proceedings that is bizarre and somehow inviting. Over the course of eight wholely independent tracks, Minus Story proves it’s a force to be reckoned with when it comes to indie pop that can turn convention — everything from studio recording techniques to the dove-tailed transitions between verses and choruses — right on its ear.
Sonically, the band is of the lo-fi school, if such an institution could ever be pegged or defined enough to limit itself to a simple core curriculum. So, drums are recorded through what can sometimes sound like a four-track, vocal harmonies hit the spot but lack the frigid perfection of studio-certified engineering, a wall of sound intentionally blocks the listener’s view (so to speak) of certain movements, and guitars sometimes sway in and out of the mix as other elements come crashing to the fore.
That being said, though, the band has clearly hi-fi intentions. The album-opening “Won’t be Fooled Again” — with its toy piano, nursery rhyme refrains, Nick Christus’ inventive percussion interludes, buried horn blasts, and little ribbons of tape loops — could get the mad geniuses of Cerberus Shoal or Cheer-Accident to crack a smile. In the midst of the infectious kick-drum and fuzz-roar claptrap of “The Happy Activist,” a vocal bridge isn’t only screamed. It’s cut up, inverted, and twisted inside out and back together to the point where any original meaning is subjugated to the thrust and throttle of the delivery. The moody plodding that introduces “You’re My Air” and “The Children’s Army (Bite the Tyrant’s Tongue)” make overt reference to the phantoms of Kid A. Sans the claims of genius that have riddled Radiohead’s tenure, the tracks just stand as evidence of how effective a narrative this story contains.
But beyond the clever and sometimes counterintuitive studio and performance distortions, the folks in Minus Story know how to write a song that cuts your heart out of your chest just to check that it’s still beating. For this, they owe quite a bit to Mr. Mangum, whose Neutral Milk Hotel output is still in many cases the measuring stick for heart-breakingly sincere but also slightly peculiar indie fare.
Listen again and you hear the craft and precision and care of it all. Listen to Jordan Geiger’s soft falsetto accented with keyboard or acoustic guitar on tracks like “Open Your Eyes” or “You’re My Air,” the sugar-sweet bubblegum bounce in “Gravity Pulls,” the sweeping Beatlesque bridges (complete with tolling bells and Brian Phillips’ carefully plotted bass patterns) that follow jagged verses in “Joyless, Joyless,” the way almost-arrhythmic drum hits yield to waves of synched vocal humming and harmonious backing noise in “The Children’s Army (Bite the Tyrant’s Tongue).” The whole record ends not with a clever cut-up or some impenetrable loop but with a reflective, repeating measure on what sounds like xylophone, after Geiger and Andy Byers (and others?) sing the line, “Fill your heart with love.”
Burroughs would likely have rolled his eyes at such sentiment, but he’d probably be proud that, somewhere in Lawrence, young artists were taking conventions and formulas into dark alleyways, messing with them a bit and then plugging them in the gut.