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mac's world-o-stuff :: wasting valuable web space since 1999

storm&stress under thunder and fluorescent light (Touch And Go)

Thought-provoking mood music or pretentious rubbish - both of these labels could be branded on Chicago/Pittsburgh trio stormandstress and this, their second album. A side project for guitarist Ian Williams of instrumental art-rock noiseniks Don Caballero, stormandstress appear to take an anti-music approach to their flavour of sound - a unique blend of free percussion, random guitar picking, frequent tempo and time changes that feels almost beyond music. Indeed, it must be asserted that stormandstress are more purveyors of sound manipulation rather than what is generally considered to be 'music'. There are no formulae to apply. They don't play in 4/4. There is no apparent structure, no boundaries. Sometimes the musicians (Williams on guitar and vocals, Erich Emm on bass and Kevin Shea on drums) sound like they're playing different songs in different rooms. However, like poetry, the quality of stormandstress' work lies below the surface. Listening to any of the tracks on 'under thunder and fluorescent light', they feel like music, or at least what music ought to be. They are highly emotive, as if the players were trying to interpret their feelings, their being, in a single moment through every pick of a string, every tap of a drumstick. It puts emo to shame.

That might sound very pretentious but that's just what stormandstress are, and they don't pretend to be anything but. Everything about this album screams pretension: the see-through jewel box, the inordinately-long song titles (the second track, for instance, is entitled 'an address that was to skip ahead of the gallop of its own sperm and eggs and wait for itself in the future: letter to 2096' - I kid you not) and the random, undoubtedly challenging nature of the 'songs' themselves, a collection of nine tracks that could easily be viewed as a jam session for musicians who've grown tired of playing music - or rather, what's generally perceived as music.

It all seems very throwaway; post-modern irony taken to its ultimate conclusion. But to dismiss this as a joke is to miss the point. Sure they're pretentious, but stormandstress make no effort to hide the fact. Surely if you really are pretentious, then you can't be conscious of it! A listen to the simulated telephone conversation at the end of 'forever, like anti-oxidants' will give an insight to their stance: the presentation of their product is much like a 'blacked-out movie', 'a book without words' or 'like a porno, but nobody takes off their clothes'. In other words, it's pointless. But they know it. Ironic irony - touchÈ. That's the whole point.

It's obvious that 'under thunder and fluorescent light' is not made for those with just an ear for a radio-friendly tune or an aversion to cultural mind games. It's not made to be simply heard. It must be experienced. Behind all the pretence, stormandstress have mastered the art of conveying emotion - in all it's randomness - through their compositions, which is no mean feat. They may be having a laugh, playing against the rules, poking fun at the 'post-modern' clichÈ, but like any good comedian, they're serious about it.

If you don't buy this album, then at least get a chance to listen to it. A breath of fresh air like this is too important to be ignored. That's if you're ready for something a bit different, that is. Not afraid now, are you?

- MacDara Conroy

Yo La Tengo And then nothing turned itself inside out (Matador)

I know I'm the new kid on the block here, so I'm gonna have to leave a mark to get your attention. Before I begin my review, I implore each and every one of you to pay attention and heed the following instructions. Buy this album now. That's right, drop the newspaper, get fifteen quid in your hands, head into town on the next bus, then calmly, but assertively, enter the nearest music retail establishment - HMV on Grafton Street has it; Tower Records will probably have it too (although it's bound to be a few quid dearer). Then, taking a deep breath, bring it up to the counter, hand over the cash, and take it home - or to the nearest CD player - for your listening pleasure. It really is that good.

Now, down to the nitty gritty. Yo La Tengo. Strange name, but a great band. No doubt some of you already know who they are, having seen their excellent video for 'Sugarcube' on No Disco or Alternative Nation (I wonder if the rock school in Ballyfermot is like that). Yo La Tengo - in its current guise consisting of the happily-married Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, plus third wheel... I mean, good friend, James McNew - have been around the New York/New Jersey scene since 1984, putting their love of the Velvet Underground and Mission Of Burma to good use over the course of nine albums worth of material that has ranged from the folksy flavour of 'Ride The Tiger' to the Sonic Youth-esque avant guard designer noise of their more recent work. Different, to say the least, and as a result, despite being nurtured by indie heavyweights Matador Records, their magic has been ignored by the major label bigwigs and, in turn, by the music-buying masses. Although now, as they stroll into love song city, that might be about to change.

What Yo La Tengo have brought us here are 13 odes to togetherness - whether that be the fruitful musical collaboration of the three members over the years, their evident strong bond of friendship, or the solid marriage of Kaplan and Hubley, who's specific relationship provides the subject matter of many of the tunes. 'Last Days of Disco' for example, softly and fondly retells the moment the two first set eyes on each other to a lush, understated soundtrack of brush drumming, while 'Our Way To Fall' is an acoustic lullaby that could well be the story of their courtship. But even in songs that aren't about them - such as the bright, upbeat 'Let's Save Tony Orlando's House' - the overall theme, the overall feeling of togetherness pervades, be it through the lyrics, or through the music, as exemplified by the soothing beauty of the eighteen-minute closing number 'Night Falls on Hoboken', a song that could have gone down the road of utter pretension but instead serves as a fitting reminder that even in the often cut-throat business of making records, there's still a place for the love of music, and still a place for a smile.

But all the subtext aside - And then nothing turned itself inside out is a truly spellbinding listen, performed by musicians in love with their craft. I wouldn't be surprised if they played this album themselves, if only to remind themselves that rock isn't dead. And then nothing turned itself inside-out is an occurrence that seems rare in a music scene dominated by sterile music that is all to often passed off by blinkered critics as genius (insert English/Welsh rock band of choice here). But I'm not going to leave with a cliched statement like 'if the very sound of genius could ever be recorded, Yo La Tengo would do a great job of imitating it', even though it's true.

Oh, wait, I just did.

- MacDara Conroy

(This review was originally written for and published by the UCD University Observer in 2000. It was printed with the wrong byline. I never wrote for the Obverver again.)