Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Tammany Hall Machine -- Amateur Saw (previously unpublished 2007 review)

Tammany Hall Machine -- Amateur Saw (self-released)

I’m going to start this review by doing something that I simply shouldn’t do -- compare this Austin band to two bands who most of you probably haven’t heard of. But I can’t avoid it, since these two bands came to mind while listening to this disc. Tammany Hall Machine reminds me a great deal of The 88, and, to a lesser extent, Novillero. This is superb keyboard driven pop, and the music often shows a sweet melodic sense, a la The Kinks during the ‘60s, with a good measure of glammy rhythms.

This is flashy and clever without being cute. These guys can rock and rollick with the best of them. Listen to Jonathan Kollar lay down the big beat on the drums to drive “Big Position” keeping pace with the frantic fingers of singer Joel Mullins on the piano. The urgency builds to the chorus, which is forceful and augmented by the guitars and some melodic bass playing. The instrumental break is a frenzy of trebly lead guitar and MVP Nick Warrenchuk’s horns. This song is rooted in the rock of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and sounds fresher than a daisy, if that’s possible (and presuming the daisy in question is fresh).

The same get up and go infects “Anti-Gospel (It Turns Me On)”. Fans of the more upbeat material of Ben Folds Five and especially the aforementioned Novillero will find a lot to like here. Again, the horns come into play, adding extra drive to a song that is already hurtling along well above the speed limit for most piano pop. The instrumental break is even more thrilling, as the guitars, horns, and piano seem to be competing for which instrument can get more out of control.

The Kinks side of the band comes out on some of the mid-tempo material, where the melodies get all sunny and jaunty. “The Jesus Chrysler” (which was “so unaffordable to own”) is chock full of clever lyrics relating to a dispute about religion. Mullins navigates the rises and falls of the melody while the lead guitar parts follow around. There’s even a great horn-driven bridge (will “ba ba” backing vocals) that folds into what is the closest thing to a chorus. The sharpness of the words (which I’m having a hard time deciding which should be snipped to quote) gives this song an edge like early Sparks. Can you dig it?

The Hall also pulls off a couple of swell slower tracks. While “Words” is not a Bee Gees cover, it swells up (hence, it’s a swell track) in a wonderful way. The song has a number of melodic ideas, which are stitched together seamlessly. Freddy Mercury would respect how these parts are put together to make a song that is 3:34 sound like an epic. And the horns help in that respect (there he is, going on again about the horns). This song sucks me in every time. Likewise with the pretty closer “There I Begin”, which earns more Freddy Mercury points for the way that Mullins sings the title phrase.

Though any of these songs could be my favorite track, the song that I keep hitting the repeat button on is the THM’s trip to Scissor Sisters Land, “Farrah”. The song is named after a ‘70s icon, and the music fits, with some R & B underpinnings, and even a little disco section. Meanwhile, Mullins finds his falsetto and it’s insinuating. For all of the glitzy trappings, there is something sad in the melody. You see this song is about a girl who wants to save herself until she gets married, and Mullins has other ideas: “She’s got her own lips of gray/I’ve got a black and white french kiss/she’s always walking far away/saying I don’t want to lose this.” Farrah is quite the sympathetic figure in this song, no matter how lustworthy she is.

This is simply one of the best power pop albums of the year. These guys have firmly established a style and write great songs. The band then finda a way to stuff the tracks full of sounds and ideas without ever bogging down. Great stuff.

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