Review by Heather Phares
Equally primal, hypnotic, and delicate, First Nation's self-titled debut album expands on the sound they set forth on the Coronation single. There's a field recording intimacy to their experimental folk-rock (which makes their signing to Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label all the more understandable), particularly on the opening track, "Awakes," where the all-female trio's wordless vocalizing and layered percussion does indeed sound like a tribe or a herd of animals shaking off slumber. Even when they sing actual words, as on "Monkey," they still sound more than a little wild. Though Nina Mehta's and Kate Rosko's voices are individually delicate and even a bit on the thin side, they sound strong and tribal when they sing together, and use the contrasts in their tones (one has a sensually smoky voice much like Bardo Pond's Isobel Sollenberger, while the other has a high, keening timbre akin to Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead) with interesting harmonic and dissonant effects, particularly on "Omen" and "You Can Be." Throughout First Nation, the band uses the same simple elements -- loping, prickly guitars, subtle polyrhythms, massed vocals, and the odd keyboard or flute -- with remarkably complex and versatile-sounding results. "Female Trance," arguably one of First Nation's most immediate tracks, is far from gentle and passive; instead, its witty tango beat and snake-charming melody make it more like a spell being cast or a ritual being performed. Meanwhile, "Child's Eyes"' hopeful lyrics ride rippling guitars, and "Swells" throws ominous electronic noises in the mix. While there's definitely an organic ebb and flow to their songs (epitomized by the aptly and playfully named "Cave Jam"), they're remarkably well edited. "Waterfall," the album's final and longest track, is still a relatively short four and a half minutes long. The brevity of their songs, coupled with the elliptical dream logic on which they run, gives First Nation a mesmerizing tension and makes it a self-assured, unique debut.
[Paw Tracks; 2006]
The name "First Nation" had me thinking of Brightblack Morning Light's Deep Ecology. Song titles like "Cave Jam" coupled with the hoof-n-feather cover art also suggest that this Brooklyn trio's on the increasingly popular back-to-nature kick. Regardless of the sylvan daydreaming, Melissa Livaudais, Nina Mehta, and Kate Rosko are more closely aligned with fellow urban bird watchers Animal Collective (their label honchos) and Our Brother Native (accent on "native") than those soulfully ambient bread-frying river children. Sure, First Nation might be happy to go weekend backpacking with Brightblack, but their sound isn't nearly as complex or satisfying.
In fact, the chirruping crew stocks its cage with fewer sounds than all aforementioned aesthetic/conceptual compadres. Stepping outside our amber waves of grain, Finnish-folk fracturer Islaja offers a closer textural comparison. Imagine Islaja's trio, Hertta Lussu Assa, stranded in a rain forest, reciting Trickster Tales as Raincoats-pitched nursery rhymes.
The album has its moments. For instance, "Awakes", an intro of sorts, is a slow sunrise, opening the powwow with a forked-tongued vocal slap. First Nation is interesting when undergoing this sort of disembodied transmogrification, approximating the birdhouse at the Bronx Zoo. The next song, "Creation (Exquisite)", an off-kilter morning-prayer service built with guitar scrapes and slippery tonal rings, is more of a slightly straight-up, slightly warped neo-folk incantation. The voices don't harmonize seamlessly and that messiness is quite pleasing. Still, like many of the tracks, it lacks a lift-off. Even the best offering, "Female Trance", fails to cast a convincing spell via its catchier Gang Gang Dance two-step.
First Nation's overall scrawniness can get boring. "Monkey" meanders as it howls and sighs over noodles and drums; the plodding, flute-laced "Cave Jam" steers listeners into a dead-end rather than some sacred grotto; "Child's Eyes", which feels like some deep-woods musical, pushes toward something skyward-- everyone singing/chanting together-- but swerves into meanderville. It ends with a few seconds of a quietly mixed tribal jam, a sort of campfire raga, and I wish these moments were upped and looped into an endless boogie.
On the freak-pop side is a pair of hook-less tunes reminiscent of Deerhoof: The high-pitched shouts of "Omen" and synthesized junkyard dub of "Swells". On the latter, drums build promisingly, but someone loses time and flails. However, I do like the finale's spastic distorto guitar (I imagine it as one of those with a speaker built into it). Actually, this one reminded me most of Melissa Livaudais' other band, Telepathe, a shamefully overlooked Brooklyn quartet anchored by the excellent drummer/percussionist, Busy Gangnes. First Nation's more skeletal and tentative sound isn't anywhere as pleasing as Telepathe's baroque actions.
I grew up on a farm in the Pine Barrens and can dig this trendy rural thing because it reminds me of home, but the indie bird watching movement still confounds me. There are plenty of trees in Brooklyn, sure, but First Nation were obviously perched elsewhere when they scribbled the creation tale lyrics that shows up on the back of the CD jacket: "They traveled across the / grassy plains grass growing / taller and taller. With each / step losing each other they learned / to listen to the birds," etc. I donned my headdress and tried to recreate the moment in McCarren Park, but a bar-league softball game kept distracting me.
-Brandon Stosuy, July 26, 2006