In December 2003, I reviewed an astonishing post-punk album, cleverly titled In One Era Out the Other, by a Bostonian/Los Angelino quartet named The Movies. I had never heard of the band before, but I became an ecstatic fan in under 30 minutes. That’s how long The Movies’ flawless album of anglo-influenced post-punk mini-epics ran. Although released in Europe in 2002, In One Era Out the Other first hit U.S. shores on domestic release near the end of 2003. I have waited eagerly for a second album by this terrific group, and I finally found it on Spanish import at Ha’Ozen Ha’Shlishit (The Third Ear), Israel’s most famous indie record store, on trendy Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv.
American Oil didn’t capture me instantly like In One Era Out the Other, but after a few listens, it won me over, and I enjoy this album more with every listen. American Oil is a louder, more urgent approach to post-punk than The Movies’ debut album, and the vocals here are more dominant. The first track, “Rock in the Slingshot,” opens with a surprising combination of swirling keyboards and heavy beats. Lead singer Timothy James sounds even more British on this album than on the band’s first release, and his repeated chorus of “We put the rock in the slingshot / Rock in the slingshot” fuses anger with determination.
“North Star” combines the aggressive tone of “Rock in the Slingshot” with spacey bleeps that imply The Movies may have spent some time listening to Air’s Moon Safari. There is also a hint of Wire’s influence in “North Star.” Brian Cleary’s organ lines on “Peck the Chick” soften the band’s harsher sound, and James sings more dynamically. The similarities to Echo & the Bunnymen, which were present throughout In One Era Out the Other, continue here, especially on the track named after the band’s lead singer. Yet, I cannot overstate how fresh and unique The Movies’ compositional style is; the band exposes its influences but never sounds derivative.
The album’s title track, a slow, lilting guitar masterpiece, carries vivid visual imagery with it, due in large part to the synthesized waves of sound in the background and the amusing lyrics: “I’ve been waiting to say this for so long / I struck American oil / My car’s electric but I can’t start it.” The most obscure piece on American Oil is “Ed (I Can’t Find Those Lyrics).” As a former Green Card holder, I have to smile when James educates listeners with “Oh my Green Card is pink / And my passport is blue” between wild, screeching keyboards and guitar feedback. The least-inspired track on the album is the repetitive, simple “How I Learned to Drive.”
On the other hand, “The Man with Two Hats” is the album’s most moving creation. Interpreted by James in a contemplative manner, the song appears remarkably like some of Kevin Wright’s work on his exquisite English pop/folk album, Looking for Mr. Wright, which he recorded under the name Always. The Movies’ rhythm section – Jessica Gelt on bass and Stevie Treichel on drums – is especially effective in setting the mood on “The Man with Two Hats.”
The album’s other outstanding track is the clever and sad “If I Had the Cash.” Treichel’s overwhelming beats and Gelt’s bass lines again realize the emotional scope, as Cleary follows their lead with brooding, restrained keyboards and James sings: “I’m dollars in debt / If I had the cash / I’d pay my friends back / If I had the cash / I’m dollars in debt / If I had the cash / I’d cut my losses / If I had the cash / I’d buy a diamond / Just to scratch my ass / A Lamborghini / Just so I could crash.”
The song that closes American Oil, “Dougie,” is structured somewhat like “Peck the Chick” but sounds more like a plea whereas the former is a directive. “Dougie” combines many of the best instrumental, lyrical, and vocal elements of the other nine tracks on American Oil and leaves listeners eager to hear where The Movies will head on their next release.