Ladies Auxiliary – My Side of the Mountain

Ladies Auxiliary - My Side of the Mountain

Anyone even partially invested in the emo boom at the turn of the century is likely to recall onelinedrawing, the given handle for scene godfather Jonah Matranga’s acoustic rock solo project.  Armed with a 6-string, a decade’s worth of intensely personal songs and some programmed drum loops, Matranga’s output under the onelinedrawing alias was oddly assuaging despite the tormented nature of his lyrics – just imagine a man baring his soul on stage next to a cassette player fashioned in the likeness of R2-D2, and you get the idea.

Listening to the debut LP of Philly trio Ladies Auxiliary, I can’t help but recall onelinedrawing.  While the Ladies’ approach to songwriting exhibits virtually none of emo’s melodramatic trappings, their disciplined use of Casio keyboards and fusty percussion tracks proffer a sentimentality that should be undeniable to anyone who played 8-bit Nintendo and owned a keytar back in the 80’s.  This isn’t all doe-eyed nostalgia for the Reagan era, however.  Pedal steel and vibraphone also factor prominently in the band’s presentation.  Add the gritty and enervated yawp of singer Colin Pate, and what you get is a coalescing of synth pop, sepia-toned country, and lo-fi bedroom rock that, like Matranga 10 years ago, pacifies even as it tries to agitate.

In spite of all these disparate textures converging on one another, My Side of the Mountain remains a relatively docile affair; only Pate’s gravelly voice occasionally threatens to turn things down a darker alley.  The band’s idiosyncrasy is clearly laid out on opening cut “Practical Life,” in which electronic drones and bleeps merge with honeyed pedal steel licks, vibraphone countermelodies, and Pate’s world weary declarations (“I lead a practical life”).  “Black Hole” puts a new spin on the template, layering a midtempo 3/4 groove with group vocal harmonies and woozy pedal steel melodies that recall a surf rock dirge.  On “Baby’s New Color’s,” psychedelic textures that sound like they were culled from MGMT’s first record rub shoulders with Pate’s suddenly quavering Robert Smith vocals – “Don’t get so carried away / be careful / be careful.”

Other notable selections include the sparsely decorated “Ricky Says Hello” and “Charity Reprise,” which, at more than 6 minutes in length, takes its sweet time to unfurl a rich tapestry of gently wafting chords and vocal harmonies.  It’s not until the final 90 seconds that the ubiquitous drum timbre makes an appearance to bring the song to a point of resolution.

Though Ladies Auxiliary’s chosen palate is well suited to casual summer afternoons, the album’s homestretch stalls with too much of a carefree vibe.  Songs such as “A Nice Surprise” and “Golden Apple” come off as cavernous and plodding without any bass to fill out the bottom end, while “Born Again” makes an awkward attempt to pair 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures.

The Ladies’ true standout player is Tom Scheponik, whose ace vibraphone and pedal steel performances add a touch of energy and luster no matter how tepid the songs sometimes feel.  My Side of the Mountain is a sturdy debut from a group clearly imbued with an eccentric sense of creativity; the record isn’t a runaway success, but it provides plenty of indication that this will be a group to watch as it develops and refines its sound in the coming years.