The Mae Shi:
[Team Shi; 2008]
Listener beware: If indie affectations such as tides of vocal harmonies, video game MIDI programming and Casio beats, concept albums, religious themes, or concept albums with religious themes give you ulcers, then HLLLYH might sent you running to your nearest message board to brag about how many songs it took you to erase it from your hard drive.
But for anyone who's followed the Mae Shi, this has to come as some sort of payoff. The band has quit cramming as many breakneck riffs as possible into each convulsive track, chilled the fuck out, and begun to focus on linear songs. More than that, the L.A. six-piece has finally made an album that matches their grand ambitions, one that weaves most of their songwriting tricks together with some new ideas, and manages to be listenable and cohesive.
This is the band who sold "mixtape" CD-Rs containing several hundred of their favorite songs at a few seconds each and DVDs with 30-plus videos, built their own synths, called previous albums "hip-hoperas" while sounding like the ugly rejected bits of new-wave at 77 RPM, and talked all sorts of shit while reigning spaz-rock terror on any club, supporting slot, or Bar Mitzvah that would have them. No longer; they now walk the walk.
Vocalist Ezra Buchla (late of the excellent Gowns) has left the group, and his strangulated squall has been replaced by Jonathan Gray, who's got a slightly calmer yet still excitable voice. The band itself retains a caffeinated anxiousness that can make the hairs on your arm stand up, and Gray's self-harmonizing sounds desperately cheerful and pained to persuade, like the last plea for everyone to take the first sip of spiked Kool-Aid. That's no accident: Many of these songs aim for "inspirational." But even with the relentless perk and the seemingly Bible-thumping lyrics, they're still subversive and individualist.
"Run to Your Grave" is the best summation of the record, and its high-water mark. Here, the lyrics sidle basic can't-take-it-with-you sentiments next to more subtle observations ("Emotion is a simple test to the synapse/ Don't let it fool you into thinking that you've got brains"), while the keyboards are sunny enough to burn flesh. On this track and elsewhere, Gray over-eagerly pushes us towards rapturous surrender, including a maybe-too-excited call for some old fashioned soul-reaving on "Pwnd" ("Do it fast! Make it hurt!") and a lockstep denial of emotion and independent thought on "Grave". Likewise, the singer of "Young Marks" praises holy war as "noble and divine" through enough Autotune to induce laughing fits, and the campfire over-assurances of closer "Divine Harvest" (which let us know "It'll be over when you die," with a rousing clamor at the end) are hardly calming.
Even without those themes, the Mae Shi run through a gauntlet of gaudy ideas without ever losing steam, like the fleet-fingered riffs of "Boys in the Attic" (see what they did there?) or the community-theater shuffle of "7xx7", while memories of Nintendo loom large on "The Melody" and the ominous closing minutes of "Leech and Locust". All the shrill exultation and greasy glisten of hyper-compressed guitars and loping Casios build up to something like an album-length musical for the tweakers in after-school detention by a band that sounds the way Ecto-Cooler tasted.
But it wouldn't be the Mae Shi without pushing themselves just beyond the reach of their ability, or letting listeners get too comfortable for too long. To wit: "Kingdom Come" is an 11-minute techno megamix of every song on the album, and it sits right in the middle of it. It's awful. But it would have been an enormous cop-out to put it at the end of the record or bury it as a hidden track, which they're probably aware of. Kudos to them for running headlong into their ambitions; they've earned the privilege.
- Jason Crock, February 12, 2008