. issue XVIII : viii .

by barathron

. artist : equals .
. album : equals ep .
. year: 2011 .
. label : self-released.
. grade : b minus .


Equals are five men with two guitars and a Wurlitzer in 2013, and that means post-rock. Their sonic refinement, meticulous talent and utter modesty — such simple attitude — is admirable. Equals’ debut EP is also compliantly well-crafted; there’s no boat-rocking sophistication here, merely technical proficiency and utter groundedness. Sound refreshing? It’s not. Unfortunately, the listener’s ears seldom perk up amid this marinade so gorgeous as to be pointlessly responsive. There is no direction for the listener’s attention. Not one musician stands out; all are subsumed in presentation. But it’s more than that. The perfect rendering is so comfortable as to fit a stereotype; this is an album of generogenic music, if that were a word. It sounds like tripe unbegrudingly recorded by lobotomized studio musicians for a metalogging music database that caters to soundtracks for tv spots. Just listen: “False Light?” A home equity firm. “Salvo?” Organic jewelry. “Table Monster?” Bran cereal. “Electric Blanket?” A Swedish SUV. This slight but pervasive kitsch is so unexpected for musicians of this caliber that one cannot decide if these pieces are overdone or undercooked. But this ‘for ambient use’ agreeability, this resounding permissibility for play on flat screens, in padded stairwells and from the speaker above the gratuity peppermint lozenge plastic bowl.

The strongest aspect of the Equals EP is the precise but muted recording quality, uniquely faded and homegrown, hushed and resonant. Sometimes this contributes to the ‘precious’ hackneyed feel of the album, but by and large it’s the only constructive and stimulating component of EP. The production by unfortunately-named Alan Douches (of Animal Collective, Sufjan Stevens) at West Side Music New York and engineering by Alex Bhore (This Will Destroy You) is excellent.

“False Light” is a benign, earnest, even-keel introduction to exactly what Equals does: evocation in an unchallenging way, gorgeousness in simple wholeness. Melodic guitar tapping and shimmering high-hat lead into a roaring, transcendent shift of complex drum breaks and ambiguous mood. “False Light” exemplifies Equals’ spacious and clean approach. They’re more dilute than the average post-rock act today, which is slightly fraught and tense, more Mogwai than Tortoise. Equals are certainly heirs of the latter approach, lush and understated, seldom striking an edge and never mirror-conscious.

Next, the multifaceted “Salvo” ups the ante with its shimmery slew of moods caught in the butterfly net of drum stick claps, finger-picked unisons that ring out on similar tones from the lackadaisical Wurlitzer, and banjo twang. Interestingly, the dominating tonal impression is a sort of 50’s fire hydrant fountain of lipton tea: assuredly relaxing, sunglasses and lawnchairs. “Salvo” is the color of muted lemonade and just as breezy, but its levity is quite curious in the context of the title (a salvo is the release of artillery at once, whether guns as a funeral salute or a rack of bombs dropped from a bomber plane); perhaps it’s not as simple as it appears? But think about not just our glorification of war, our ability to treat it as something conveyable reel-by-reel in a family night (see, for example, Dr. Strangelove’s introductory montage of airships and their bomb spawn presented like a ‘wonders of the sea’ documentary where plane refueling is treated like whale sex). In the same fashion, “Salvo” percolates in a passive, twinkly-eyed awe…. This anempathy could be tongue-in-cheek, but let’s not give too much credit to Equals, they of the guileless instro.

“Table Monster” has an oblique, Pinback-eqsue tone, jet-set but mellow. It twiddles with a driving electric guitar, cresting in slow movements to an epiphany with chiming triangle and blossoming feedback. But the downturn at the end of the crest is striking; one of the smartest choices on this EP, it resolves the motion perfectly, like the unfurling of the wave’s sinking curl. A vocal chorus (“Ahhhhhh” — o please) is artless and homely. In an unexpectedly hip twist, the bass has an early 90’s house crush-and-sizzle to it, especially against a skanking guitar — but then it’s back to the strath of effusive schmaltz, which begins to get tiresome. “Table Monster,” at nearly six minutes, is Equals’ longest by far, but does it deserve to be? It’s the most deflected and wand’ring… which might be worthwhile elsewhere, but Equals problem is that they fail to construct emotional music that will also galvanize their audience.

“Roadside” is an interlude of tumbleweed magnificence, complete with crescendoing feedback washes that disperse over the landscape like a long echoic fog of finger-picked canters in horseshoed stamps.

Standout “Electric Blanket” is by far the richest and most dynamic piece on the EP, even embracing some unconventional samples (dynamo winds, the mumbling of lighthouse sweeps, well-water bucketing, crunchy gulps) unusually both ethereal and hip, and with urgent stick tricks and streaking, horizon-bound strands of guitar reprised in the piece’s chorus. Lesson learned, it combines the feedback wash of “False Light,” the subsumed chorus of “Table Monster,” and the hip stick clicks of “Salvo.” The highlight is uncommonly visionary and hangs together the best: a breakdown of mathy drums, layers of Wurtlizer, burnt bass, and bolting tendrils of guitar that effloresce a hazy coma ends the song, leaving the listener with a good final impression.

by Brittany Tracy