My friend Ben records a great deal of music in his spare time, mostly of the lovably unlistenable variety. Right now, his goal as an artist is to get Thurston Moore's attention, and he's developed a workable plan for doing so: mailing scores of home-recorded albums and EPs to create the impression that his music is in demand and that there's some sort of kinetic force behind it.
I don't know how well such an approach would work with Thurston, but it has netted Cerberus Shoal plenty of attention over the last decade. I've never met a Cerberus Shoal fan in my life, nor have I ever read an exceedingly enthusiastic album review or feature, but this ragtag assemblage of misfits has carved out a niche for themselves simply by releasing a shit-ton of albums and never failing to make them interesting. They've never had a watershed recording, or even a really, really, really good one, but a quick scan of our archives shows that the band issues at least one well-played hour of music a year. They've become a fixture, and even a Voice, through sheer doggedness.
The Land We All Believe In doesn't upset expectations for better or worse. Like the rest of the group's catalogue, it's too pop to qualify as a real-deal avant-garde outing, but too schizophrenic and ambitious to really fit anywhere else. Cerberus Shoal still sound like a wagonload of circus performers being trampled by an endless stream of rhinos, with horns, accordions and banjos squeaking at random and Eastern European blood running thick on the ground. Also, like their other albums, this one is chock full of merits but leaves room for reservations.
A few sublime slices of pop provide both the most immediate and lasting pleasures. The title track culls from the band's affinity with folk music and the theatre, adorning a banjo 'n' tambourine ghost train with funhouse xylophone and tense, well-timed percussion, while the vocal performance at once suggests a closed-off front porch and a sold-out black box theatre. This is definitely the song that will earn the requisite Brecht comparison. Even more versatile singing drives "Pie for the President"; here, a trilling chorus line of affected, high-pitched voices harmonizes and chants nonsense while a hammy male lead oafishly belts out lines like "everybody dies and it's all a lie" in the song's final strains. Surprisingly, the track never grows too goofy for its own good -- like The Danielson Famile, Cerberus Shoal have a strong dedication to songcraft that subjugates silliness to careful composition.
The band's internal editor calls in sick for "The Ghosts Are Greedy", though, and damn near derails the album. The song opens with a circle of dancing gypsy voices, but then bottoms out in a painful horror movie midsection in which vampirish synths and stock chain rattling scores a deep-voiced monologue that builds to the money line, "Dr. Drain needs you... mentally!" It's more than a bit campy, and by this point, the song is approaching the ten minute mark without showing any signs of developing an enjoyable musical context for its intentional ridiculousness. Fortunately, a turnabout comes, quite suddenly, and the track ends in a thrilling five minute psych pop headtrip, replete with kaleidoscopic melody. It's unlikely that many listeners will have the patience to make it that far, though.
This sort of gratuitousness abounds, and its proximity to really accessible flashes of brilliance only makes the listening experience more frustrating. There's a certain injustice when "Wyrm"'s snarling barstool rant erupts in a noisy bloodbath, both toward the Waitsian pop that disintegrates and the minutes of abstract exploration that listeners will likely consider misplaced, and will accordingly disregard. Cerberus Shoal establish a delicate balance of aesthetics in "Junior", where angular Aloha-isms coexist peacefully with obfuscating space-outs, but you'd think there would be more of these moments after eleven albums, no? The Land We All Believe In still accomplishes the same feat as its predecessors, though: it gives you one more reason why you should at least respect the Shoal.