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Thursday, May 26, 2005 09:01 pm

sound patrol 5-26-05

Silly, quirky, and breathtaking

Head of Femur Hysterical Stars (spinART)

For a band that hasn’t existed as long as the Dubya administration, Head of Femur has carved out quite a dominion. The founding members, vocalist/guitarist Matt Focht, keyboardist/drummer Ben Armstrong, and guitarist/bassist Mike Elsener — all Nebraskans who relocated to Chicago — formed the prog-pop outfit in late 2001, while their previous group, Pablo’s Triangle, was on hiatus. All three men already had distinguished r√©sum√©s: Focht played drums for Bright Eyes, and Armstrong and Elsener were in Commander Venus and Solar Wind, respectively. HoF’s 2003 d√©but, Ringodom or Proctor, generated considerable critical buzz, and the group opened a series of shows for Wilco earlier this year. In the time that most bands take to set up a merch table, HoF has grown from a trio to an octet to a miniorchestra: Hysterical Stars,¬†HoF’s sophomore effort, boasts a whopping 28 musicians, including members of the Sea and Cake, Hella, the Flying Luttenbachers, and (just to keep it gangsta) the Glenn Miller Orchestra. If you’re playing the Kevin Bacon game, Indie-Rock Edition, HoF is a mere degree or two of separation from pretty much any scenester you could name.

Like Ringodom or Proctor, Hysterical Stars¬†is unapologetically, unremittingly quirky. Almost every song is suitelike, teeming with distinct parts and wildly incongruous instrumentation that, despite all odds, usually works. Calling it ambitious is like calling Bill Gates well-to-do. For the most part, this embarrassment of riches proves unembarrassing. Despite the abundance of trumpets, harmonicas, English and French horns, saxes, harps, glockenspiels, cellos, flutes, piccolos, and so on, the songs are so carefully constructed, so sensitively executed that they can support the weight. Granted, the sheer multiplicity of it all can be a bit nerve-wracking at times — “Easy Street” careers from jerky second-wave ska to chamber-orchestra classical to Dixieland jazz to mariachi, and “The Sausage Canoe” is as silly as its title — but when HoF hits a groove, as on the rapturous anthem “Song for Richard Manuel,” the results are breathtaking.

The Secret Migration, the sixth album from Mercury Rev, is probably the psych-rock veterans’ prettiest, happiest, and most accessible venture, which, in the minds of too many Rev devotees, equals heresy. It’s too bad, because if any band deserves a sabbatical from controversy, it’s Mercury Rev. Since forming at the University of Buffalo in 1989, the hugely influential but sadly underrated group has weathered all the slings and arrows of outrageous indie fortune: the dissolution of its first label, multiple arrests on drug and weapons charges, the acrimonious departure of its original singer, nervous breakdowns, airplane fights involving flatware, forcible ejection from Lollapalooza’s second stage, and the widespread ingratitude of its native country (contrary to popular opinion and the fervent wishes of Mojo¬†magazine staffers, the Rev is and always has been North American).

Unlike its predecessors, Migration was recorded at the band’s home studio in the Catskill Mountains. The rural setting and unhurried production schedule no doubt contributed to the CD’s lushly pastoral sound and overtly romantic spirit. The bleak, paranoiac tone of previous efforts is completely absent here; in its place are tender odes to domestic bliss and the glories of the natural world. Lyrically, these hippy epithalamia can seem a bit fey and Renaissance Faire at times, especially if you object on principle to dragonflies, morning stars, and dark country brides named Lorelai who ride white horses through black forests. Still, only a beauty-immune jerk could take issue with the music itself, which is grand, majestic, and sumptuous, a perfect marriage of experimental electronics and shimmering shoegazer pop.

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