First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2007, Volume 14, #3
Written by Melissa Stroh
The men of the indie outfit Phonograph know what they’re doing. Everything about the band fits together nicely to form a complete, definitive image. Its name, for example, is a real throwback to the origins of music; its outward appearance is that of five scruffy-looking guys from New York; and its sound conjures the mood of an after-hours affair at a local bar.
Nevertheless, the success of Phonograph’s self-titled debut isn’t entirely a product of the band’s own doing. With help from some well-connected friends — notably Wilco’s John Stirratt and the Waco Brothers’ Jon Langford — the ensemble received praise and garnered attention before its first outing even was released. This can be a curse or a gift, and with Phonograph, it’s a little bit of both. Yes, it got the word out about the up-and-coming ensemble, but in a sense, all the praise served only to build expectations to unrealistic levels.
Phonograph’s eponymous effort begins very unusually with an instrumental track that is full of static and displaced noises. Normally, such a tactic would fail miserably, but because it’s such an abstract sound — like the alien voices in the movie Contact — it draws the listener into the sluggish In Your Mind. Aside from his obvious resemblance to Mark Oliver Everett (The Eels) and Tom Petty, lead singer Matthew Welsh still tries to distinguish himself from his predecessors. Welsh doesn’t achieve this by changing his vocal or lyrical approach. Instead, he ignores all of the comparisons that have been placed upon him by his critics. If he doesn’t acknowledge them, they’re not present, right? Kind of. Either way, looking beyond the similarities and digging deeper into the lyrical landscapes that Welsh has created reveals a genuinely distinctive glimpse of life in the U.S.A. Songs such as Radio Waves and T.V. Screens deliberately point to everything that American society is about — music and television, with a little celebrity gossip thrown in for kicks.
Enhancing his Americana-imbued lyricism, Welsh and his band aurally mix alternative country with classic rock. The ever-present lap guitar just screams of honky-tonk dives, while the distorted electric guitar is used to balance the two styles. In addition, Phonograph appears to be fascinated with infusing its songs with a variety of strange sounds. Blips and bleeps — think Postal Service — are laced around the edges of nearly every tune on the self-titled affair. The foreign accoutrements keep the album current, and they help to distinguish it from other alt-country discs.
With an arsenal of peculiar sounds, unmistakable vocals, and thoughtfully penned lyrics, Phonograph has made an album that needs to be heard by the masses. Considering the band’s connections, it undoubtedly will find its own niche. ˝
Phonograph is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box