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If Only Then by The Cricket Rumor Mill (Review)

The fact that the band caught me off-guard, and in the most unassuming of manners, bodes well in my book.
If Only Then - The Cricket Rumor Mill

I enjoy getting pleasant surprises from the CDs that I listen to. Mind you, I enjoy it when a CD absolutely comes out from nowhere to blow my mind and hand me my jaw after picking it up off the ground, but the pleasant surprises are almost better in a way — coming out of nowhere as well, and with a sly little wink and a nod, sliding in just under the radar and causing my ears to perk up at just the right moments.

The Cricket Rumor Mill’s If Only Then is full of such moments. This Chicago-based trio of Mark Engstrom, Jon Hensley (Melochrome, Morning Recordings), and Joe Popa specializes in making breezy, dream music containing trace amounts of The Sea and Cake, Sterolab, and Tristeza. And not surprisingly, they’re on Chicago’s Loose Thread, a burgeoning post-rock/dreampop label.

Now admittedly, the group’s music seems fairly conventional at first, if not perhaps a bit too influenced by the aforementioned artists (among others). However, the group often proves quite adept at suddenly but subtly shifting their songs into more unexpected but nevertheless delightful territories, revealing their music to be much more layered and intricate than previously thought. The disc’s opening track, “When Eyedrops Were Animals,” is a perfect example of this. A slightly funky guitar melody sashays along beside various horn arrangements while a solid, if unremarkable, drumbeat keeps the pace.

But with a mere flick of the wrist, the song suddenly seems to fall back into itself as layers of additional guitars, horns, and wordless vocals begin to flood in from all sides. It’s not a major change in the song’s mood, but it is a noticeable one, and the ease and grace with which the band performs their little bit of sleight of hand lends it more depth and effect.

“Shakespeare Machinery” is much the same way, progressing in a breezy manner that almost yearns for the presence of Archer Prewitt’s breathy vocals. However, distorted guitars come slashing in underneath while the ghostly synths take a slightly more ominous bent. “Climbing In The Big Tree” derives much of its beauty from gentle piano cascades that drift down throughout the song’s 5 minutes or so. And yet, they’re not even the song’s primary element. Rather, they quickly fade into the song’s background, providing a backdrop that adds color and vibrancy to the other pretty sounds, be it drum programming, drowsy horns, or watery synths.

It’s this sort of subtlety and attention to detail that makes If Only Then more than just yet another instrumental post-rock album — and Lord knows there are plenty of those flooding the market these days (in this regard, they remind me of the sadly unknown My Education). The real test, however, will be how well these songs hold up after a month or two, if the subtle tricks and surprises the band throws the listener’s way lose their charm or not (such as the, um “interesting” hip-hop vocals on “Siamese William”). Still, the fact that the band caught me off-guard, and in the most unassuming of manners, bodes well in my book.

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