Considering I'm a relatively stable, happy kind of guy, my musical taste is strangely focused on the maudlin and dreary. Not so much in terms of actual melodies and chords, but certainly when it comes to lyrics I have a distinct appetite for the acerbic and bitter - which is usually accompanied by musical textures in a similar down-beat, dark and moody vein. Invariably, when an acid wit and taste for the gloomy is combined with cheerful, happy-go-lucky music my ears are instinctively pricked and eager. With Portland's The Ascetic Junkies this balance between the joyous and the the spiteful is a tricky one to measure.
At first listen, This Cage Has No Bottom (released on Timber Carnival Records at the end of last month) comes across as merry romp through vaguely Americana-tinged acoustic pasture. This is a style that has a considerable cultural cachet this side of the atlantic, particularly here in London, where every nu-folk [sic] act you can think of is incorporating banjos and tea-chest basses into their sound with reckless abandon. The difference being that over here bands tend to wear their dour natures on their sleeves; to come across as "happy" just wouldn't do at all. The Ascetic Junkies clearly have no such qualms, and to my miserable ears it took a couple of listens to get to the meat of this record. Just under the surface there is a vein of taught aggression, but the join between this and the superficial cheeriness is seamless.
Another delicate balance they've managed to pull off is that of having dual male/female vocalists. Often this kind of approach can leave a band sounding as if they've yet to pick a direction, but yet again the fusion here is seamless. If I'm brutally honest, there's something about Kali Giaritta's vocals that sets my teeth on edge, but this is tempered by Matt Harmon's Colin-Meloy-esque drawl as well as the faultless production. I guess that coming from Portland the Decemberists must cast a long shadow for anyone creating music with this distinctive "Portland sound", but nevertheless they seem to have learned their lessons well; much like the Decemberists at their best, this record walks the tight-rope between being slick enough to actually sound good, whilst maintaining the home-made sound that this style of instrumentation demands.
This really is a record of balancing acts. The dual vocals, the production, the cheery/dour question; the tension between all these elements is expertly managed here. Whether that makes for a good record or not still remains to be seen. The lyrics - particularly the sledge-hammer rhyming schemes - often sound trite and either rushed or over-thought (a balancing act that The Ascetic Junkies haven't pulled off with such aplomb) but when one takes a broader view the record does make for a surprisingly rewarding listen.
The Ascetic Junkies - Why Do Crows? [audio //www.bearfacedrecords.com/EbMBlog_mp3s/TheAsceticJunkies/TheAsceticJunkies_WhyDoCrows.mp3]
The Ascetic Junkies - Renegade Salesman [audio //www.bearfacedrecords.com/EbMBlog_mp3s/TheAsceticJunkies/TheAsceticJunkies_RenegadeSalesman.mp3]