20 March 2009

Album Review: Youth Group - The Night Is Ours

This it: a haunting, beautiful excursion into anthemic alternative rock. Australian quartet Youth Group holds a modest profile, and this is potential evidence for the absence or nonexistence of God. They are known better in native Australia than in the States, but if Architecture in Helsinki and The Avalanches can both successfully make the leap to North America, then Youth Group deserves similar acclaim. Their blend of emotional catchphrases, alternately sparse and milky arrangements, and sometimes downright (or, rather, upright) masterful song structures triumphs over the CD that holds The Night Is Ours. Every song more or less drips with overflowing emotion, unrestrained. Perhaps it is this fully owned and embraced romanticism that distinguishes Youth Group from some weird Morrissey-cum-Gang-of-Four-cum-Cure Frankenband.

While the casual listener might gag at the sound of horns or strings (notably at the approach of the synthesized varieties), such textures are common to this disc, as are the delicate presses of piano keys; where electric guitars fail to convey doldrums or pluck away your reservations for the music one by one--like a sharpshooter--these sounds amplify the intensity or cake the soundscape in moodiness. It's the musical equivalent of Edgar Allen Poe melted together with Shakespeare (King Lear and The Tempest especially come to mind) à la Henrik Ibsen.

Intellectual delusions of grandeur massaged, I am forced by the necessity of clarity in my articulations to further my review by (sigh) talking about the music. I am struck and stricken by the conflict between minimalism and ornamentation orchestrated throughout the album. In a way, the structure of the CD reflects this. The Night Is Ours begins with "Good Time," a reflection on alienation that starts with nothing but a murmuring synth note, hung in the air like wind chimes. The tone is soon joined by a pensive bass note repeated over and over, followed by Toby Martin's soft baritone vox. As he begins to question his identity, he is joined in time by plodding piano keys and drum hits until he reaches an epiphany--represented both vocally and melodically. Though slow and containing little rock substance, this short tune evokes a kind of symbolic texture I rarely have the pleasure to hear.

From here Youth Group ventures into "One for Another," which recalls the subtle energy of God Is an Astronaut, but with excursions into the kind of bass-guitar interplay that the Futureheads use to great effect and all the lush trappings of the Human League. The ending switches gears entirely, shifting into a horn blowout that almost quotes Broken Social Scene's "Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)." "Two Sides" is equally appreciated, as much a salute to self-conscious indie pop rock as to 80's synthpop. "Dying At Your Own Party" is purely channeled Morrissey with a backing band that explores the narrator's underlying emotions even as Martin sings abjectedly. The first half of the disc ends with the full-bodied "All This Will Pass."

Most memorable is "Friedrichstrasse," a single tune that reveals itself to be a microcosm of the rest of the 38-minute effort. A ballad of escape and fulfillment, Martin croons, "I'm never gonna leave/ The possibilities/ I'm blowing through my mind./ Can I leave this behind?/ I'll make it on my own./ I'm never going home." The reason the song is unsuitable for airplay in its original form is its usage of a single curse word. But the song, with its ringing ambience, steadily drawn rising action, and majestic peak, all flesh out the musical soul of Youth Group: bright and dew-eyed, longing for all the grace and innocence of a doe with a weary, forelorn expression. "Friedrichstrasse" more fully probes the idea of layering of instrumentation to achieve climax, with great results. The song progresses confidently, rendering each successive transition transparently and comfortably.

As "In My Dreams" and "What Is a Life?" close out the album with charm and sophistication, I wonder why Youth Group has failed to achieve widespread fame as other, less deserving artists have captured. Unless my musical instincts are vehemently misguided, Youth Group has put out a stunning fourth LP. Good show, lads, good show.

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