Release Date: Sep 29, 2009
Record label: Sister's Den
Plenty of bands want to take you higher and even more are looking to get you down, but it's increasingly rare to find a record that sounds good with a AAA guidebook and a few hours to get to god knows where, as long as it's somewhere else. Despite the unabated use of adjectives like "sprawling" or "sweeping" or "epic," the indie road trip album has become something of a lost art, with bands mostly forgoing dense, pent-up instrumentation that slowly unfurls and releases-- you know, that lonesome crowded sound. You could blame it on so many bands being from autophobic NYC, or that the Pacific Northwest gods of indie are still going too strong to already be a primary influence, but neither would explain New York's Cymbals Eat Guitars' Why There Are Mountains.
Cymbals Eat Guitars' name comes from a Lou Reed quote. This we shall get out of the way early on. Verbatim, he described the Velvet Underground sound as “cymbals eat out guitars”, an all together less pleasant image. Rather the band's name, with its image of a cymbal with a wedge taken out chasing coloured guitars around a dark maze.
Cymbals Eat Guitars make charmingly sloppy rock out of the indie hotbed of Staten Island, New York. At times, vocalist Johnny Ferocious channels Stephen Malkmus ("Cold Spring"), but the band sounds something more like mid-career Modest Mouse or Bright Eyes, creating lots of space to explore and following what would be small touches for another band for a minute or two. It's to their benefit that they don't seem to know any better, and that they're establishing themselves in this vein now, without pressure from labels and moneymen to streamline their sound.
Released in the UK without much screaming and shouting in the autumn, CEG's debut mined the quintessentially American wells of 90s alt-rock and road-trip imagery to create one of the best first albums of 2009. Not many people seem to have noticed it though, which might be something to do with them having the worst band name since Hooky and Mani's Freebass. Never mind, it's been growing on me since.
Although many up-and-coming indie bands are racing to create no-fi epics that sound like they were recorded on Macaulay Culkin’s Talkboy, indie-rock is simultaneously regaining a sense of grandeur thought mostly shook off. Antlers are doing layered, metaphorical self-confessionals, Spencer Krug is recording albums that are indebted to David Bowie’s art-rock and glam periods, and MGMT (and to a lesser extent Amazing Baby) seek to restore glam excess to its place in the pantheon by making songs that at least wish they were epic. But few bands kick it grander than Cymbals Eat Guitars, a Staten Island four-piece whose self-released debut, Why There Are Mountains, was picked up for wider release following a review on Pitchfork and pavement-pounding by the guys to get it in stores.