Album Review: Cymbals Eat Guitars – Why There Are Mountains

It seems that the various eras of modern music are being recycled with blistering speed these days.  Perhaps the internet age, file sharing, and the mp3 blog culture’s constant emphasis on the Next Big Thing has hopelessly destroyed our attention spans as listeners, completing the job that television started over half a century ago.  Another culprit would have to be the modern hipster’s obsession with nostalgia for the items and styles of their youth.  Seriously, go search the net for some obscure toy, song, movie, TV show, clothing, or foodstuff that you think no one else remembers, and you will invariably find thread upon thread devoted to the obsessive cataloguing of said item’s history.  Nothing is new anymore, so much so that we are vainly attempting to make old stuff new again.  On a long defunct blog that I had back in the early 2000s, I postulated a theory that I termed the “Best Week Ever Effect.”  At that time, the notorious nostalgia traffickers over at VH1 had exhausted their “I Love the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s” format, and they introduced “The Best Week Ever” so that snarky semi-celebs could review the relevant pop culture events from the week before.  In my theory, I predicted a cycle that would soon lead us to “The Best of The Best Week Ever” (happened), “The Best Day Ever” (happened), and “The Best Ten Seconds Ago Ever” (hasn’t happened yet, but ask me again ten seconds from now). 

This theory has manifested itself in the music world as well, and many bands are already mining eras as recent as the early 90’s for musical inspiration.  If I had my way, everyone would be imitating the Pixies, but I would probably be unhappy since some recent bands have already gone that route, such as Blood On The Wall and The Whigs, with limited success.  On first listen, NYC band Cymbals Eat Guitars could easily be identified as a Pavement rip off band.  Indeed, the first two songs on their debut album, Why There Are Mountains, stick almost uncomfortably close to the Pavement playbook.  Album opener “..And The Hazy Sea” begins with a blast of horns before receding into a pretty guitar melody, after which lead singer Joseph D’Agostino launches into a pitch perfect Stephen Malkmus impression, eerily capturing that singer’s odd vocal cadence.  The song itself is an over six minute romp of shifting tempos and joyous noise, alluding to other influences like early Modest Mouse and Built To Spill.  Next song “Some Trees (Merritt Moon)” again plays on the Pavement angle, sounding like a lost track from Brighten the Corners with an infectious chorus.  But just when you think you have shoehorned Cymbals Eat Guitars into a knock off band, albeit a very good one, they change things up and reveal their depth.  “Indiana” emerges from some initial haze to reveal a jaunty, piano-driven slice of Brit-pop.    On a similar note, “Cold Spring” utilizes some incredibly well-placed strings at the beginning to create a quietly haunting dirge followed by wild tempo shifts and an explosive climax, while “Share” begins as a dreamy shoegaze crawl before blossoming into a gorgeous waltz interlude with Sgt. Pepper horns and quietly soaring background vocals before the electric guitar breaks in and takes the song to new heights.  Mind you, the songs described so far only make up half of the album.  The second half remains just as surprisingly addicting, with highlights such as the bouncy “Wind Phoenix” and the guitar squall of “Living North.”

The recycling of musical ideas is nothing new, I suppose.  Rock ‘n’ roll’s beginnings can actually be traced to white artists ripping off the sounds of their black musical forebears to popularize the genre for widespread audiences.  Still, I find myself unusually wary of bands that simply mimic the sounds of groups that came before, especially when the time between originator and imitator seems to be getting exponentially shorter.  Cymbals Eat Guitars, however, pulled a Shyamalan on me, beginning with familiar sounds and then sucker punching me with new and exciting ideas.  As long as bands are willing to be this adventurous and use the work of previous bands as a springboard for greater things, I say bring it on!

Cymbals Eat Guitars – “Cold Spring”

P.S.  If you are fortunate enough to live in the Austin area, Cymbals Eat Guitars will be playing at the Mohawk with the last band I reviewed, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, on 9/25/09.  That’s the day I leave for Vegas for a wedding, so sadly I will not be there, but I would highly recommend anyone check out these two great new bands.

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