Consonant – S/T

Consonant’s story is fairly well known in Boston; how Clint Conley, formerly of Mission of Burma, re-discovered his songwriting muse after a decade largely spent away from music. He assembled an all-star band: Chris Brokaw from Come, the New Year, and Codeine; Matt Kadane from the New Year and Bedhead; and Winston Braman from Fuzzy. And this album, as good as anything that’s come out of this area all year, is the result. It’s tough to know if word about certain area bands is spreading outside of Boston because this can tend to be an insulated, incestuous, little community. If it’s not, go out of your way to get this album or see them live.
Conley wrote Burma’s two most accessible songs and the two songs most people seem to think of when they hear the band mentioned: “Academy Fight Song” and “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver.” Roger Miller, Conley’s Burma mate, appears on three songs on this album, but Consonant isn’t all that readily reminiscent of Burma. Where Mission of Burma was unapologetically difficult (try cuddling up to Vs.), Consonant is unapologetically grown-up.
One of the biggest surprises is the Byrds-style harmonies that appear throughout the songs. The songs are supremely tuneful in places, like the way “Maybe we happened and maybe we didn’t at all” rides over top of the playing and helps “Who Touches You Now?” open up during the chorus or the gleeful without being obvious “bah-bah” back-ups during “Post-Pathetic.” The disc, from what I’ve read, was recorded before the band had performed much live. It doesn’t necessarily show, although I think that the songs come off with a bit more urgency live. They swell in a way that pulls you closer to the band. On stage, they come across as completely confident and determined. I suppose there’s no substitute for experience, and they have it in droves. Not so much polished, they instead seem controlled; they have the ability to take the music wherever they want. Above all, they seem professional, and I mean that without a hint of sarcasm. Some people throw professional out to mean antiseptic, but nothing here comes close to that. Listen to the surging arrangement of “What a Body Could Do” if you need any proof; it hits harder and with more authority than any Vine or Hive.
They thankfully avoid grand gestures and declarations, and the album is stronger for it (they even have a song called “Call It L—,” preferring to leave even that emotion open to interpretation). The album is informed throughout with the bittersweet knowledge and perspective that comes with aging, but none of it is weak or sold-out. Way too many artists out of their 20s and 30s make albums about getting older; much of this album is instead about re-evaluating the past from the vantage point of the present. More than anything they all just seem really excited to be making this music, and it comes across. Even when the more heartfelt songs don’t work, it’s usually because they’re almost embarrassingly naked and emotional (“Not Like Them,” “The Kiss”) but never Don Henley mawkish. It’s tough to knock them without feeling like a miser.
Conley conveys a deep attachment to these lyrics, even more interesting because eight of the songs’ were co-written with poet Holly Anderson, and he takes great care in wrapping them around the arrangements. He takes the potentially awkward refrain of “John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things'” and not only makes it fit but makes it work well. And he repeats the feat throughout the disc; he manages to take lyrics that shouldn’t work (they’re Anderson’s poems that he adapted to the music; yikes) and turn them into tiny anthems of adulthood. “What a Body Could Do” comes closest to Conley’s two major songs from the Burma era. Those had a youthful aggressiveness, energy, and frustration, but “What a Body Could Do” pulls off the neat trick of being anthematic and mature at the same time. It’s physical musically and thematically (“We couldn’t ever make enough time for lips and hips and arms to teach us what a body could do”). “Blissful” is a surprising piece of garage-pop with throw-back, wide-eyed lyrics (“We were gold in each other’s orbit, we drank air, the psychedelic, very pink carpets and sheets of paper flowers ran down the walls, a delicious frosting”). “Who Touches You Now?” and “Buckets of Flowers, Porno Mags” sound influenced a bit by The Fall.
While the music business is busy inundating us with youth-obsessed acts and sad, wasteful reunions, it’s really nice to find musicians who both age gracefully and make relevant music. Consonant is as good as anything out there right now.