Review Summary: Incredible mix of acoustic and electric instrumentation.
In modern society, especially in the most industrialized countries, an education is key to success in life. Many American children believe that they will be poor and unsuccessful if they do not go to the best college, get the best degree, and meet the right people. But as The Education of Henry Adams
explains, a life's education comprises much more than just school. Indeed, school is of little significance if one hasn't learned the correct moral and social lessons. My Education strikes me as a rather peculiar band name, and I like to think it is one of those band names that actually means something. Perhaps this musical experiment, producing only its second album in nine years with Bad Vibrations
, is something of an educational experience rather than a means of living for its members. If so, then Bad Vibrations
is a doctoral dissertation in post rock, a brilliant mixture of acoustic and electric, quiet and loud (with plenty in the middle), beautiful and jarring.
What first makes Bad Vibrations
unique is its focus on acoustic instruments rather than electric. The only group that can contend with this acoustic nature is Balmorhea, but My Education do not limit themselves. Instead, the band roots itself in these sounds, as opener “This Old House” establishes with its organic, nothing-to-everything style. For much of this song and much of the album, the viola sings the melody while guitars provide chordal support and countermelodies. “This Old House” is an exercise in subtlety, with no crashing tidal wave climax, but instead a simple, natural growth. With the percussion using suspended cymbal swells and tom-tom accents rather than overbearing crash cymbals and snares, the song has something of an orchestral quality about it. Electric guitars only appear as gliding overtones over the song's main material. The album returns to this nature in its closer and title track “Bad Vibrations”, bringing the entire album full circle.
That's not to say, however, that the album is a smooth, soothing ride throughout. The very next song, “Arch”, disproves that theory immediately as it makes fuller use of electric guitars and puts the song in a much more typical rock setting. The sound stands in stark contrast to the sound presented in “This Old House”, but it still roots itself in a more acoustic nature as the viola once again states all the main melodies. Although it gets swallowed in the distorted, ear-shattering climax of the song, the band's reverence for acoustic instruments presents itself in arguably the album's loudest, most intense song, although “Aria” acts in the much of the same manner as this song. “Sluts and Maniacs” presents yet another side of the band, one more rhythmic than melodic. Rather than relying on legato, full soundscapes, it centers around a piano and drum groove. Its sound faintly recalls Jaga Jazzist's “Oslo Skyline”, featuring the xylophone the same way, but it hardly resolves in the same way. The song is divided into two separate sections in melodic material, although its rhythmic style connects the two.
Aside from these sources of variety, however, much of the album plays in that area of legato, full soundscapes with soothing viola melodies, acoustic guitar patterns, and reverberated electric guitar soaring over the entire band. The seven member ensemble finds many ways to differentiate on this small niche, however. “Mother May I” features a faint voice calling from the distance, and instead of using the viola for dancing folk melodies, it simply adds to the chordal structure. “Briches Blanket” is the calm after the storm of “Arch”, with the electric guitar and viola playing off of each other for a very unique sound. Near the end, however, it quickly capitulates to a climax in its own right, with the electric guitar coming to the forefront simply wailing on a single note. Whether understated or epic, each song builds to a climax of its own, and nothing could be considered filler. Bad Vibrations remains consistent and unique throughout.
What makes Bad Vibrations
such a great album, one of the best of the year, is not one quality in particular. Instead, it has all the qualities of a great album – originality, natural album flow, consistency, and despite that consistency, standouts that are among the best compositions anywhere. Songs like the brilliantly subtle “This Old House” and “Bad Vibrations” blend acoustic and electric so well that the difference hardly means anything. The multitude of sounds manage to blend into one. Yet the hard-hitting “Arch” and “Aria” provide more cathartic experiences with powerful climaxes. Whatever the purpose of making music for the band My Education, the music is certainly an education within itself.