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The Battles
Blue Curtain

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When the New Pornographers released their debut album, Mass Romantic, earlier this year, the band was dubbed a sort of low-level supergroup. With the release of albums from Destroyer and this, the almost equally spectacular Battles album, the comparison might not be so far-fetched.

Distinguishing themselves from other collectives, this group of musicians has no aversion to genre hopping; while most of their output sticks with the generalized pop format, one might argue that the various members have released the best Brit-pop (Mass Romantic), chamber-pop (Streethawk: A Seduction) and retro-pop (Lycanthropy) of 2001.

In Lycanthropy, The Battles have constructed an album of joyous '70s pop, infused with a melodic sensibility straight out of the '60s. While the album is unabashedly retro, the band fuses the styles of the time into a musical conglomerate that remains individual in its own eccentricities. Quirky Soft Boys-style vocals meander through sun-drenched, psychedelia, juxtaposed with guitar-chiming Big Star aesthetics.

Lycanthropy is an album in the truest sense of the word. Songs fall on each other with almost brash consistency. The band emerges not as a modern group tossing around a bunch of retro cliches, but rather as a band with a characteristic sound that comes together in succinct conformity.

The album's only major low point can be found in "John Merrick", named for the infamous Elephant Man, and in the following song, "Saudi Arabia", in which the band dawdles along like Robyn Hitchcock singing songs from Ziggy Stardust. They seem to be making conscious stabs at something epic, but the vocals fall painfully short of the flourishing melody they overlay. The album is drawn out of these doldrums on "Wayward Sons", in which the band gets back to the fervent pop that makes Lycanthropy a notable release.

With Matador's re-release of the Soft Boys' classic Underwater Moonlight and their subsequent reunion tour, along with the ongoing re-evaluation of the relevancy of Todd Rundgren and Jonathan Richman, the early '70s seem to be back in a major way. For perhaps the first time since 1975, this grand psychedelic pop style is overtaking the latter-day punk movement as the most talked-about musical milieu. While this is only of concern to the musically obsessed -- myself included -- it provides Lycanthropy with an interesting context.

-- John Wolfe
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