(Honeymilk; 2005)

By Christopher Alexander | 21 October 2007

There's no shortage of longwinded sophistry concerning humanity's perpetual search for identity. It's not my intention to add my own voice to the din, but since we are in the business of analyzing pop records, conferring upon them some sense of identity (and, of course, whether the CD is worth $15.99), let's spend some time on it.

Recently I've had occasion to wonder how we – critics on down to the consumer – judge a record; is it better to evaluate it on its own merits, or do our judgments carry with them context, trends, and any number of educational or autobiographical insights? If the former, wouldn't any record automatically be successful by dint of its mere existence? Once you've heard Django Reinhardt, does it really make any sense to consider, even whimsically, the merits of The Shaggs? Or, are The Shaggs a lot more relevant to the music you listen to than Reinhardt? Closer to our intentions, does Reinhardt's disability make his music that much more incredible, or is that beside the point? Do The Shaggs become more interesting in light of their father's ambitions in the face of such little talent?

This has all been on my mind because, bereft of the internet, I've had to review a record without any information on its creator; no press kit or review in sight. I don't even know how Serena Maneesh even showed up in my iTunes playlist, but I knew within ten minutes that CMG should be covering it. But how was I going to do it? I didn't even know the first thing about this band… didn't I? Sure, their influences and sounds were instantly recognizable, and they emerged from the womb as something wholly their own, with features fully formed. There certainly wasn't any shortage of things to say about the record, but I still felt unprepared. Wasn't I going to look foolish if I didn't talk about, I don't know, the guitarist's super-model girlfriend, or if I remark how thoroughly European this band sounded and it turned out they were from Ohio?

Turns out Serena Maneesh is from Norway, the singer gladly and graciously cops to his influences in interviews, and the record has earned some deserved high-profile press stateside with no domestic distribution. They also have some superfans in The Dandy Warhols, which makes perfect sense. Serena Maneesh injects the Warhols' toothy, cocksure swagger the lush, narcotic insularity of My Bloody Valentine and Ride. At times it sounds like a better executed version of J Spaceman's flirtation with garage rock on Amazing Grace. There are also overwhelming similarities to Isn't Anything, the record My Bloody Valentine made when they were still finding their feet. The difference here is that Serena Maneesh pulls those disparate halves together, rather than sounding torn by them.

Which is a fancy way of saying their sound marries garage rock with an expensive echo plate. Take "Beehiver II," a rave up where a bending guitar string comes out of a thick fog, stabbing in fits at busy drums. "Selena's Melodie Fountain," which bears Steve Albini's audible stamp, mostly relies on a guitar blissed out on reverb over single string riffing, resulting in what could be a mash-up of The Pixies' "Vamos" with Trans-Am's "Play in the Summer." In some songs there is more emphasis on mood than composition. "Candlelighted" has the good sense to let the textures speak for themselves, as untethered tones wander over a hypnotic drum pattern and single-chord bass riff. We've seen this model before, of course, started by The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and more recently seen brilliantly done by Radiohead with "The National Anthem."

In spite of the ever-present haze, this album consistently goes for the throat. Often there is a scramble of instruments well after the song ends, as if the musicians were carried away by the sheer momentum of their playing. Just as often, such as opener "Drain Cosmetics" and the seven minute "Sapphire Eyes High," we get a quasi-tribal intro, single eighth notes played high on the bass guitar in lock step with a tom drum. "Your Blood in Mine," the album's final song, comes off as Fugazi's take on "Interstellar Overdrive"; iIt's one long, tense, and angular chord progression, starting off underground and fighting its way through crepuscular woods to sunlight. It's as if the band is so confident of themselves, they play as if they don't even need songs.

Good thing they can still write them, though. "Her Name Is Suicide," which traces back to "Feed Me With Your Kiss" from Isn't Anything, bubbles along on gurgling keyboards and sighing vocals. "Don't Come Down Here" begins where it ends, with a lulling guitar playing big suspended chords. You almost miss it before it begins to get torn apart in the middle by a slushy guitar riff, slightly off time and exactly off putting.

Nothing can be judged in a vacuum; in this review I've made comparisons to ten other artists, including no less than four to My Bloody Valentine (my notes contain more – among them Mogwai, The Jesus and Mary Chain, … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and, most obviously, The Velvet Underground). It's possible I'm aggrandizing the size of my own record collection, but this is the kind of thing that makes a record exciting. It reminds me of the way, as Jonathan Safran-Foer said, that people look half like their fathers, half like their mothers, and half like themselves. This, to me, is how all records should be identified: in the music's own language and lineage.