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The First American


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This provocative debut from the North Carolina octet Pyramid is a true genre-bender, haunting the territory between avant-garde jazz, rock, folk, and country. The First American makes bold use of strings, horns, and reeds to complement — and often supplant — traditional rock elements like guitar, percussion, and synthesizers; in the tense mix of styles and instrumentation, the songs bloom. If Radiohead had grown up on moonshine and Appalachia string music, this is what Kid A might have sounded like. The sinister opener, "Digging to China," sets the tone (the narrator is burying a body), chugging relentlessly crescendo-ward on the back of rolling drumbeats, menacing cello, upright piano, and baritone sax before dissolving in a free-form collapse Charles Mingus might have orchestrated. "Monster in a Canyon" begins life as a country shuffle before veering left at the bridge into a full-blown New Orleans funereal dirge. Strings swarm like bees on "Adelaide" and mimic lightning strikes on "Appalachian." The brass and reeds propel a locomotive off the tracks on "The Engineer" (perhaps the best song involving trains since R.E.M.'s "Driver 8") and stampede the herd on "Waiting for Buffalo." Meanwhile, principal lyricists and singers Ben Best and Joey Stephens take turns conjuring hallucinatory landscapes and paranoid scenarios to match the music. "There's something coming over me and I'm pointing out my enemies," Best warns on "Appalachian," and on "Digging to China" Stephens sings, "Let me walk you through the forest/There's a way back I know/I'm gonna lose it/Better move it," leaving the listener to decide precisely what — or who — will turn up missing. But for all the foreboding (a lithograph of the 16th century seer Mother Shipton adorns the CD cover), The First American succeeds by balancing moments of elegant simplicity with the malevolence. With its sparse piano lines and "Now you see me/Now you don't" opening stanza, "Shelley" is a lullaby for heartbroken adults. "Speakeasy" features soulful cello, marching rhythms, and a mute, shell-shocked protagonist, and could serve as audio accompaniment for Dalton Trumbo's antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun. "Streets Were Raining" unfurls languorously like an opiate buzz, turning the everyday into exquisite ballet. While they clearly revel in the chaos emerging from the collision of styles and instruments, Pyramid doesn't succumb to sterile experimentation. These songs breathe because they also remain true to the traditions that gave them life in the first place, making The First American one of the most welcome surprises of 2005.

The First American, Pyramid
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