Posted by: Necci – Dec 02, 2011
It can be easy when considering a modern indie rock record to get caught up in subgenre bingo. Is it chillwave, or glo-fi? Dream pop? Beach punk? Some combination of them all? Avoiding a detailed description through the generous use of previously defined signifiers becomes the path of least resistance. But who is going to remember any of those bands in three years, when we're on to the next flavor-of-the-month subgenre? You might recognize the name, but it seems much more difficult to believe that you'll be able to hum any of their tunes. And that's why, even though they make my job harder in the short term, it can be quite a relief to run across a band from the indie scene who defy my instinct to slot them into whatever subgenre is currently in vogue. Emperor X is one such band, and while it's been hard to figure out how to describe them, it's been quite easy to listen to their album repeatedly.
The first thing that I can tell you about Western Teleport is that it's full of catchy pop songs. There are some indelible choruses here, tunes that will stick in your head all day. At the same time, their decidedly off-kilter presentation will prevent them from being radio hits anywhere in this universe. Bandleader Chad Matheny has a smooth, strong voice which reminds me of the best qualities exhibited by They Might Be Giants's John Linnell and The Mountain Goats's John Darnielle. Despite an obvious distaste for professional recording environments, Matheny's voice is nonetheless polished enough that sometimes it's in danger of being too professional-sounding. Fortunately, despite the way his vocal parts are clearly the driving force behind all of these songs, they never become so dominant that they suck the raw, unpolished energy out of the songs as a whole.
Matheny clearly records most, if not all, of his musical backing tracks himself on multitrack home recording equipment. The guitars and keyboards that lay down the principal accompaniment for his vocals are clear and distinct, but in contrast to his voice, which seems like it would shine through even the shittiest of recordings, these backing instruments sound somewhat ragged and gritty, exchanging the sort of studio polish that a lot of record company executives would no doubt like to see on pure power-pop gems like these for a homey sincerity. The fact that Emperor X's songs sound far from perfect in a technical sense is a lot of what allows them to achieve a real emotional connection with the listener. The noisy, experimental bridges between the songs here, as well as the somewhat muddy and imperfectly played percussion, hark back to the lo-fi indie popsters of the early 90s--indeed, the one-sheet that accompanied this CD namechecks Sebadoh, Pavement, and Guided By Voices, and it's clear that groups like these had a big influence on what Emperor X are now doing.
What really matters, though, are the songs. Opening track "Erica Western Teleport" is based around a refrain of "Don't think of her," ironic in light of how easily the mind will retain that very chorus, repeating on a loop inside your head all day. "Canada Day" is mellow, featuring minimal percussion, but its intertwining single-note guitar lines stand out, especially when they lay down melodies in counterpoint to the ones Matheny is singing. On "A Violent Translation Of The Concordia Headscarp," slapping hands and feet lay down a propulsive bed of percussion, over which the quickly strummed guitars roll like bluegrass banjos. The album's centerpiece and brightest moment is "Allahu Akbar," one of the most conventionally recorded and played tunes here; this one is very close to conventional indie-style power-pop, making the Muslim chants in the chorus all the more transgressive. Imagine the hue and cry if this song broke through to mainstream pop radio in Muslim-phobic America in 2011. The uproar would be glorious, in my humble opinion. Of course, it'll never come to pass; in truth, even this relatively straightforward song lies somewhere around the Dismemberment Plan on the continuum of indie-pop quirkiness, which makes it rather emblematic of the album as a whole. Still, though, if you can get past the fact that these excellent pop songs are presented in a somewhat less than straightforward manner, you're going to find a lot to like here.
By Andrew Necci