The Ugly People vs. the Beautiful People
Manifesto / Bella Union
Holy crap, this is a beautiful record. The Czars are a five-piece band from Denver who play what can only be described as country-prog. That’s right, you heard me: raise Radiohead in the west, give ’em cowboy boots and make ’em take long drives across Wyoming late at night, and they might want to sound like this. They wouldn’t be able to pull it off, though, and neither would anyone else. This is heroic song-making, y’all, and by far one of the best albums of 2002.
The Czars aren’t afraid of anything: they’ve got country and jazz and lounge and r&b and soul and “classic” rock and “indie” rock influences, but they melt them all down and form it into something new, something that swings and weeps and suffers and exults. John Grant’s songs are strange and wonderful things; meandering at times, perhaps, but each one is worth its every twist and turn in gold. Where to start? The beach-pop of “Killjoy”? “Autumn,” which is manages to remind me of both Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and some of those lovely things on The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, except with pedal steel swoops? The metallic crunch of “This”? Or the hushed western dirge “Lullaby 6000”? All I can say about this song is that at the 2:45 mark, when Grant harmonizes with himself on the line “And I don’t even know myself… anymore,” you will weep tears of joy and melancholy. I swear you will. A robot would.
Grant is the obvious centerpiece of the band, because he writes and plays lugubrious piano and croons his songs in a soulful baritone that can swoop up into a Tim Buckley keen on a moment’s notice. But the rest of the band is really sickeningly tight; hell, guitarist (and “grooveologist”) Roger Green turns in such a great solo on one song that it’s called “Roger’s Song.” (Gotta be a hell of a solo to make a fellow eponymous.) Paula Frazer contributes her countrified SF tones to three songs, stunning as always. And the production by Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins) and Giles Hall drenches the whole thing in lush ambient perfection. Shit, man, I could go on all night here.
I grew up in semi-rural Oregon, listening to pop and country and prog and soul and new wave and FM rock all at the same time, so I guess I’ve been waiting for this album my entire life. But no matter where you’re from or what music you like, you’ve been waiting for this record too, even if you didn’t know it. Accept it: the Czars are it.
Manifesto Records: http://www.manifesto.com