After hearing this debut full-length, it's easy to figure out why Brian Sokel and Michael Parsell called their project AM/FM. Their debut album haphazardly charts 75 years of pop history in the course of its 13 songs, while always sounding like its own ragged, off-kilter self. Mutilate Us seemingly incorporates a little bit of everything -- late-night paeans, open-plains balladeering, glazed-over '70s rock, cluttered indie pop -- then wraps it in a skewered lo-fi package to give it context and date it decidedly to the postmodern 21st century. They are just as capable of turning a cover of the Beach Boys' "Disney Girls" into a wispy, romantic Elliott Smith tune (which they do) or plucking a new wave melody from their memories and mutating it into strummed country crooning. And the wild variety of genres and subgenres collide head-on, creating oddly warped, wire-crossed hybrids, the parts of which are impossible to peel away from one another. "Those Long Arms" turns sh*t-kicker country into indie rock so that the final product doesn't really sound country at all except in fits and starts. The first half of "Yours Recklessly" sounds like a beaten-down, sepia-toned Appalachian ballad by using nothing but skeletal acoustic guitars, woeful Hammond organ, and some heartbreakingly lonesome co-ed harmonies. It feels more poverty-stricken and anguished -- and authentic -- than 100 similar attempts to recreate the harshness of Depression-era balladry, before giving way to its brash pop underside, a metamorphosis that mirrors the mood of the lyrics. The fractured, messy quality of the music conceals its purposefulness. Like the white noise of Pavement or tightly wrapped tics of Guided by Voices -- two bands, incidentally, which AM/FM recall -- the smallest details, moments that could otherwise be construed as accidents, are actually the qualities that end up transforming the songs. "LeAnne, the Seasons Persist," for instance, has a breezy, autumnal soft rock melody, but the percussive clang that runs through the entire song, sounding not unlike a sledgehammer hitting a railway pin, is pure blues -- as, in fact, is the sentiment of the lyrics. The tune itself, though, is nowhere near the blues. Such juxtapositions have a freakishly appealing effect. Mutilate Us is the kind of album that you are glad cannot be pinned down, because to do so would be to delete the quality that makes it so exhilarating and full of surprises. Like all the finest examples of laissez-faire pop, there is enough in each song to keep you returning long after the melody has been burned into your mind.
© Stanton Swihart /TiVo