Review Summary: A veritable treasure-trove of originality, inventive playing and solid-gold songwriting, with real emotional depth and endless replay value. A true lost classic.
I have a pretty voracious appetite for discovering new music. It'd be no exaggeration to say that I uncover at least 5 or 6 records per week that are new to me, either through buying, downloading, or their being sent/recommended to me by a friend. At such a rate, it's no surprise that quite often I'll listen to an album a few times and decide that it's probably one of my favourites ever. When the novelty of a new musical discovery has worn off, few records retain that early sense of brilliance; however, those that do are the sort of albums that you can listen to once and feel like it's been with you since you were first aware of the presence of music in everyday life. Due in part to the effortless combination of a wide range of sounds, and the emotional impact it possesses, Burning Airlines' Identikit
is one of those special records.
It's remarkable how truly individual this album is; even at first glance, the artwork is dark, mysterious, and rather unique in its arrangement (cut and folded in such a way that you can customise the cover, alluding to the title...). In terms of the music, there are all number of comparisons waiting to be made between different aspects of the songs and a whole variety of genres and artists, but it's hard to describe the band's sound as a whole - there are few if any bands that sound similar enough to Burning Airlines to warrant a direct comparison. Maybe the most obvious would be Jawbox
, vocalist J. Robbins' previous band. But in all honesty, it's only Robbins' familiar voice that the two bands have in common. The rhythmic, grinding, Helmet
-esque post-hardcore that Jawbox dealt in is mostly absent here, and J's vocal style has gained a certain elasticity, eschewing his old, sometimes rather monotonous tones for a more wide-ranging and melodic delivery, ranging from subdued, low singing to forays into falsetto, and everything in between.
His guitarwork is similarly varied and impressive, rarely sticking to straight chords for longer than a bar or two at a time (and even that's rare). There are few parts which suggest much in the way of guitar overdubbing and yet Robbins' playing, as well as his judicious use of effects are such that no single part of any song sounds thin or empty. Neither, conversely, does anything sound overdone or crowded. This sense of balance is enhanced by the rhythm section of Mike Harbin (bass) and Peter Moffett (drums), who fulfil their roles perfectly throughout, locking together tightly to form a solid backbone to the music, and ensuring that the turn-on-a-dime changes in rhythm and tempo come off smoothly, as well as effectively countering Robbins' slightly looser approach to his instrument. It's apparent in small flashes throughout the album that all three members have a somewhat virtuosic musical ability, but it's their restraint that allows their brilliant songwriting to shine through. In fact, it's hard to think of another three-piece who rise so far above the collective sum of their parts.
For a notable display both of the band's varied songwriting and effective interplay, just listen to "Morricone Dancehall;" kicking off with a slightly discordant, lurching, waltz-like riff from Robbins, soon joined by a simple-yet-effective offbeat drum pattern from Moffett, along with Harbin's low, burbling bassline, Robbins then switches to a single wailing guitar note as he begins his rather frantic singing. Later on, there arrives one of those aforementioned sudden time-changes for a few bars, accented by sheets of dissonant guitar noise sandwiched between subtle melodies. Despite such detail, the aural picture that my description has painted in your head will more than likely be a million miles from what hits you when you actually hear the song. As I mentioned earlier, Burning Airlines' sound is a strange and varied one, hard to pin down in so few words.
That said, there are a few more straightforward jams to be found here. "The Surgeon's House," is carried by a snaking guitar part with only a couple of variations on the same theme. Generally, it's the intensity and increasing levels of distortion with which Robbins plays the riff that dictate the changing dynamic of the song, and his choice of notes that maintains the slightly-spooky and sad mood. Moffett's almost lounge jazz-esque, subdued drumming and Harbin's low, meandering bassline are very simple, and yet compliment the similar simplicity of the guitar and vocal melodies perfectly. Imagine Jawbreaker's "Accident Prone," but stripped of the production sheen and endless layers of guitars, and you've got something close to a fair comparison; two songs built from fundamentally simple parts that combine to create a far more powerful end result. "Paper Crowns" and "Outside the Aviary" are two more fairly straightforward tracks. Arguably the poppiest to be found on Identikit
, they're both cracking indie-rock numbers, over before they've really begun, leaving the listener to hit repeat to get another fix.
The music alone would be enough to warrant significant praise, but what brings a whole other layer of depth to Identikit
is Robbins' lyrical approach. Relentlessly personal and emotionally charged to a fault, it's hard not to find oneself glued to the lyrics sheet, following every last word that leaves his mouth, and drawing all manner of interpretations from them. "The Surgeon's House" is a gloomy and heart-rending account of the memories brought up by finding a photo of a prematurely-deceased relative, and similarly affecting is the account of a suicide-jump from a building, told from the point of view of the victim, contained within "Earthbound." Even when he's not dealing with dark or personal subject matter, J's unique phrasing and tendency towards word-play ensure there's nothing throw-away about the lyrics here.
I can forsee it's going to be endlessly infuriating for me to post this review knowing I've not fully discussed the freakish effects-pedal-buggery (or is a keyboard? Fu
cked if I know...) and funk tendencies of "Everything Here Is New," the creepy dissonance and love-story lyrical tack of "Tastykake," or the slow, lumbering beauty of "A Song With No Words," along with all number of other enjoyable quirks to be found within Identikit, but truth be told, if I were to try and describe the full range of sounds on offer here, you'd be reading this review for even longer than it's taken me to check the grammar and structure of this ridiculously long sentence. I guess you'll just have to take my word for it that Identikit
is a veritable treasure-trove of originality, inventive playing and solid-gold songwriting. It's disappointing to note that a certain occurrence at the tail-end of the year Identikit
was released caused many to look past the content and character of this record, focusing instead on the perceived offensiveness of the band's moniker. Don't make the same mistake, as this is a true lost classic, and certainly worth delving into.