Mellow and controlled is the way of Town and Country, a formidable accomplishment considering it belongs to the busy Chicago avant-garde scene and all its members are multi-instrumentalists several times over (including self-taught harmonium players, however you go about doing that). Over the course of the band’s nine-year career, negative press has been sparse, partly because the members’ propensity to improvise coupled with the complexity of the arrangements makes it difficult to bash that which you don’t understand, and partly because what they do is so damn nice. What they do is fashion acoustic instrumentation (no computers or electronics) to lay down a slowly developing minimalist drone. The band’s fifth release, Up Above, tweaks this formula, thanks in part to a tour of Japan with dronologist Tony Conrad that resulted in some new toys (bamboo flutes and mouth organs).
The knock on Town and Country is that the music is too slow, repetitive or detached. Whether or not they are acknowledging this, none of the ten tracks on Up Above goes longer than ten minutes, and the entire album checks in at just less than forty-five. Opener “Sun Trolley” benefits from this tightness: There are four transitions – an orchestral swell precedes a gorgeous violin piece, then bells and chimes lead into traditional Japanese sounds – none of which lingers for too long.
But some of the tracks still don’t feel like they offer enough. The repetitive chime over the barely sustained flute drone of “Phoney Fuckin’ Mountain” literally runs out steam and has to re-emerge. And considering an unsustainable length of note is characteristic of a mandolin, that instrument was a poor choice to feature on “Bee Call,” which would have benefited from a thicker backing to maintain the drone.
Still, the subtlety of the project is intriguing most of the time. Closer “Up Above” uses hand bells and chimes to sling-shot the orchestral chaos, which travels just long enough on its own momentum to get scooped up by a gentle rhythmic change. “Almost at White Glass and Sun” is a simple acoustic guitar folk strum and a nice surprise toward the end of an otherwise Eastern-tinged album.
Thrill Jockey Web site (with streaming audio)