Rating: 8 (library disc)
It’s true what they say: in the desert you can remember your name. You also remember every odd little thought that ever crossed your mind, staring across the miles of sand with the sun beating down out of a featureless sky, with a subconscious soundtrack of FM radio hits of your youth flickering between your dad’s country music and the shimmering magical sounds of TV cartoons, running under memories of fairy tales, thinking about a cool drink, fear for your soul, and the dozens of odd mental images that spring up when there’s nothing but a flat horizon to be seen.
That’s the sound of II, and it’s a brilliant reminder of what a guitar in the right hands can do. For while the rest of the band’s work ranges from rudimentary (Cris Kirkwood’s bass) to charmingly amateurish (the bewildered vocalizing) to competent-plus (Derrick Bostrom’s rootsy drumming), it’s Curt Kirkwood’s guitar work that rounds up the fragmentary lyrics and delivers a herd of palpable emotions trampling the listener like a ridiculous metaphor. He might fool you by opening the album with “Split Myself in Two”, which sounds like Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” gone punk (right down to the bamboo-under-the-fingernails vocal delivery), but a quick left turn into the electrified bluegrass of “Magic Toy Missing” signals that something else is going on. Combined with the other two instrumentals (I think the instrumentals are my favorite songs!), the shimmering “Aurora Borealis” and twangy “I’m a Mindless Idiot”, Kirkwood’s letting us know that his guitar’s not just a noise machine, it’s an extension of his consciousness. Unlike most guitar instrumentals, which just show off the player’s chops, these tracks extend the moods of the songs around them. The way “Magic Toy” leads into the homesick country-western “Lost”, and “Aurora Borealis” extends the majestic coda of “Plateau” (another Zeppelin inspiration) are deft emotional touches as well as arranging brainwaves.
The guitar work within the songs is brilliant too, from the revving intro to “The Whistling Song” and the trembling solo of “Oh, Me” to the shaky chording of “We’re Here” and the subtly-deployed whammy bar in “Lake of Fire”, there’s not a single guitar part that isn’t at the service of the mood and feeling of the songs. And the songs are replete with vivid imagery and powerful tunes, making the impact of the guitar work doubly strong.
The record starts in a panic (“if I don’t get an answer gonna split myself in two”) and traverses that desert landscape in a haze of alienation ("I’ve got a wound I know will never mend”), perseverance (“clean, no dirt to be seen”), and disconnection (“I know you tried to see me through but honey I’m still having trouble finding out what’s you”) with a scattering of random phrases that signal a certain fractured sensibility (“who needs action when you’ve got words?”, “I know this doesn’t rhyme but the clutter on the table has been getting out of hand”, “there’s nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop and an illustrated book about birds”), and it’s all wrapped up in cosmic imagery of angels, birds, caverns and fire. A deeply mystical experience, and it all wraps up with Kirkwood whistling to while away the hours as his heart hovers in the living room and drops feathers.
II is a deeply weird and emotionally powerful. It’s the voice of the mountains ringing through a chorus pedal, the noise of a hummingbird in love, the sound of the stars shining on a cold night, and a must-have for aspiring guitar heroes.
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