Thursday, March 6, 2008

KQED Music: The Heavenly States - Delayer

It's so easy for us to over think our reactions to new music. The first time we hear a track or album, only one question should really matter: Is it any good? But, more realistically, the question we ask is "do I like it?" And, before we know it, our pet peeves and personal prejudices are getting involved, and we're well on the way to over thinking things.

For example, I have a terrible tendency to write off new artists unless they astonish me within the space of a single song, and/or sound incredibly different to anything I've heard before. Unfortunately, the first time I listened to Delayer, the new album by Oakland's The Heavenly States, it achieved neither. But it had arrived recommended, so I persevered. Then, a few days later, I found myself happily humming the bouncy hook to album opener "Morning Exercise" while I was doing the washing up, and I realized I had been smitten.

Of course, I'm not saying this album is about to rewrite musical history after all, only that it was unreasonable to condemn it out of hand for this reason alone. After all, even those few recordings that do arrive like an incredible bolt from the blue and sound as if they're going to turn the pop universe upside down, normally achieve something much, much less. Such as when I excitedly play some "amazing" new band to a friend, only to have them reply: "Oh, they just sound like [insert name of other, older, smugly obscure artist here]."

Instead of attempting to serve up a musical revolution, Delayer concentrates on simpler pleasures. In particular, the first three tracks pop out of the traps with a gleeful, driving rush that, after a few listens, is hard to resist. The album does lose a little momentum in the middle, but there is enough quality on either side of this flat spot to compensate.

Highlights include "Lost in the Light," which recalls the Velvet Underground circa Loaded, the slower-paced "Make Up," which breathes the same melancholic air as Jane's Addiction in their quieter moments, and "The System," which is propelled by the kind of squalling guitar riff that would have rocked just as hard in any decade out of the past five, but sounds none the worse for it. In fact, this is probably one of the keys to the band's charm. Like The Raconteurs (to pick another recent example), they aren't doing anything particularly new, they're just doing it well. And, of course, it also helps that Ted Nesseth sings as if he was ordained to front a rock band from birth.

It's probably no coincidence that The Heavenly States remind me of a few other pop-edged indie outfits I grew to appreciate despite some initial misgivings. These include The Shins (although with a bit more balls, which is no bad thing), Razorlight (particularly at the start of "Pretty Life") and The Dandy Warhols.

In fact, this last example seems the most apt. When Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia came out, I was working in an office with a stereo that seemingly had no "off" button, and just two volume settings: loud and louder. Once I got used to the noise levels, I discovered this arrangement offered two great benefits. The first was the Pepsi-challenge "blind taste test" effect; that is, hearing new music without first knowing who it's by, which removed a great deal of personal prejudice from the equation. And the second was that even if I didn't like something straight away, the chances were that someone else did, and I'd end up hearing it a few more times before my opinions hardened enough to complain.

Of course, the down side was ending up in a conversation that started with me explaining to a work colleague precisely why I'd always hated The Dandy Warhols and then going on to ask what was playing on the stereo because I really liked it. I'm sure you can guess the rest.

The Heavenly States' record release party is at The Independent in San Francisco on March 7, 2008.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.