Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Marfch 23, 2009
Let’s rewind. The year is 2003 — six years ago, give or take — and a Berkeley, Ca. band by the name of Grand Unified Theory has just released its debut on the indie label Undetected Plagiarism.
The self-titled record’s 10 songs are emotive and engaging, and they display a well defined understanding of quiet-loud/soft-hard dynamics. They are guitar driven pieces that define a band, to borrow a quote from these pages, that is “too loose and frayed around the edges to be claimed under the ever-popular banner of emo, yet their songs have a calculated dissonance to them that makes them too complicated to be written off only as some post-Pavement collegiate indie act.” The songwriter behind the group is Jerry Chen and, on Grand Unified Theory, he wears several hats, playing guitar, bass and synth. He also sings, his voice light and vulnerable and somehow defining.
But that was then. Back to 2009. Chen has left Berkeley and is now recording under the moniker The Televangelist and The Architect in a basement in Cambridge, Mass. (One could trace Chen’s postgraduate years – he’s now a doctoral student at MIT, according to press clippings – through liner notes.) The sound is much different. Gone is the thunder that occasionally rumbled below the surface of things, the loosely woven indie rock that depended on the chemistry of a full band. On There’s A Song In There Somewhere, a six-song EP out Feb. 26 on Undetected Plagiarism, the songs are folksier, the arrangements often built around a single acoustic guitar or piano and a voice or two. The songs might lack the punch of Grand Unified Theory (or even earlier outings by The Televangelist and The Architect) but, despite being stripped a little more bare, Chen’s work does not lack emotion.
Some of the sound of the new recording might be a function of its birth. The songs were recorded, between albums, with thoughts of a collaboration in mind. Once that idea was abandoned, Chen avoided studio flourishes and instead kept the songs in a basic form. “While I always do my own tracking in my basement studio, this was the first time I attempted to mix my own recordings for the sake of learning how to do it,” Chen writes. “With that in mind, I deliberately kept the production simple and the instrumentation sparse to avoid getting in over my head.”
Compared to 2006’s Diaries of the Intelligentsia or 2004’s The Mass Exodus from California, There’s A Song In There Somewhere can feel like a solitary affair. There’s the lonely shuffle of an acoustic guitar here (“A Work In Progress”), a moody bit of piano (“The Letters”) or somber bit of nostalgia (the title track) there. The best songs on this short disc seem to build around the basics, as on the engaging “The Scene of The Crime,” where Chen gathers some momentum around little more than an acoustic guitar and a trembling voice. (“Don’t let me, please/ as my hands wrapped ‘round your neck/ and I squeeze too hard/ I hold for too long/ Now you’re lifeless forever in my arms.”)
There’s only one bump in the road. On the comparatively ornate “… In The Blizzard,” contributor Alyssa Barbour offers a female counterpart to Chen. Her voice is fragile and delicate enough but the arrangement doesn’t work; their voices end up overlapping to the point where the song sounds like a muted kind of argument instead of a give-and-take between male and female leads.
Elsewhere, The Televangelist and The Architect aims high and hits the mark. “A Work In Progress” starts as a simple ballad for acoustic guitar but expands with an incredible use of a string section. On the closing title track, Barbour returns, this time offering spot-on punctuation to Chen’s lead. On “…By The Pond,” the most band-centered exercise, Chen’s voice wavers and nearly cracks as he sings lines like “I know this road you’re heading down seems so very much obscure/ you were lost but I found you in my heart.” The moment — surrounded by shuffling acoustic guitars, quiet percussion and a casual bass line — is a picture-window onto the best parts of the disc, and clearly worth the gaze.