4 a.m. is the New Midnight
(Satellite/Star Records; 2008)
By Chet Betz | 12 November 2008
This record is a mess but so am I…and so are all my friends. The New Midnight (my preferred, lazy titling) is sort of like a mating of Hot Chip with Glow favorites Velella Velella—less stuffed and with perhaps less production talent than either of those groups but with definitely more lovely female vocals (mostly courtesy of Briana Nadeau) and more, um, piano. Self-described as a meeting of Motown, electro, classical, and indie dance, the Marches’ debut album largely functions as an exercise in eclecticism and somehow not being annoying. Part of that function is the music’s stretching of minor chord foundations to accommodate a wide spectrum of tones and styles. The function of this opening paragraph is to express that though it and the record it’s talking about are both a bit scatter-brained, they’re both highly, ahem, functional. The record has the added bonus of being enjoyable.
The full record title implies late night partying, which is probably a helpful scenario for getting into this album, and I think it’d probably also help if the partying was taking place in the band’s home base of Hollywood. Which is to say that I know a lot of aspiring actors and writers/temporary waiters who need this record in their collective starving-artist-but-still-got-enough-bread-to-buy-drinks life. I’m in Ohio but at least the evocation of Los Angeles nights makes me feel a little warmer (I also feel warmer because I’m more well-fed than my West Coast chums). Weirdly, LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” could function as a summation of how I react on a personal level to the record’s content and atmosphere. I know, I know, you thought we were done with all that “function” talk.
We all make mistakes when we party; in this record’s “mistakes” category file the forced stutter of a call-and-response that opens the title track, the lyrics of “Bad Touch” (“I gotta chocolate full of my hand”), the fact that “The End of the Album, Pt. 2” is a minute and a half of listening to the group fuck around. Which would be okay except that it joins wastes of space “Skinema” and “Bobby Brown” in separating gorgeous horn-dirge “Need Me Back” from its swooning sister track, “Cold Hands Warm Heart.” Ribaldry’s good for giggles but still self-defeating. On The New Midnight there’s a little too much good to be defeated, though. I was serious when I pinned “gorgeous” on “Need Me Back”; those horns are spine-chilling, the drum line inspired in its forward energy and processing, and Nadeau’s rich lilt fluidly navigates the melancholic proto-soul territory that Beth Gibbons used to stake out. Where the horns there drawl, on “Cold Hands Warm Heart” they blurt and do a run of the melody as Nadeau trades a few vocal lines with Marches’ mastermind Richard Conti until Conti’s line becomes a piano’s and Nadeau’s parsing the song title into pretty catharsis.
Classically trained pianist, in fact, multi-instrumentalist Conti’s strongest moments here are the ones that use that instrument as basis or flourish (“Need Me Back” aside), be it the way a track like the almost DJ Shadow-ish “Ghost of a Chance” centers around reverberating piano notes, damper pedal pushed into the floor, or the prancing repetitions that mimic the chord changes on the title track. “Sometimes Sex isn’t about the Money” has original classical piano compositions put to a backbeat…and that shit actually works. What now, Bach. “So Ill” only fully comes together at the end when the chiming piano is isolated and then slowly joined by the other elements, including a beaut of a bass line. You get the feeling that Conti wrote all of this stuff on piano even if he’s just playing saxophone or synthesizer on the final track. It’s a far cry from Hauschka, but maybe not so far from drunk Hauschka.
And, yeah, the fun tracks are fun, but I guess it’s telling that I choose to focus on this record’s bluer side and tinkling ivory and all that. The party sets the scene yet the subtext is me sitting in my chair late at night with my first beer only half-empty, my silent toast from hours before going out to my talented, unnoticed friends trying to sort through the rummage of a welcoming wasteland a country’s width away, trying to find what’s left of their dreams. Entertaining themselves to the point of distraction, which is the point where they keep going. In the liner notes there’s a cheeky diagram for how to DIY record an album. This album is the Marches’ distraction. This is where they keep going. This is why they sound like all my friends.