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Start a People by Black Moth Super Rainbow (Review)

Blissful-yet-bittersweet psychedelic music that is bound to conjure up some childhood memories.

I’m sure many of you have noticed this by now, but I tend to inject a lot of meta crap into these music reviews of mine. Meaning I’m just as likely to include some childhood recollection, internal narrative, pop culture reference, or even third-person commentary on my own writing as I am actual discussion of the album at hand. But it somehow only makes sense to me to include this massive web of information, however tangential it might be to the current review.

Much of the reason is that music is inextricably woven throughout my life, and as a result, my impressions of CDs are shaped as much by memory and experience as they are by any sort of “critical” opinion — hence the often lengthy, meandering, and journal-like nature of many of my reviews.

It’s impossible for me discuss Soul Whirling Somewhere or Everything But The Girl and not mention the romantic travails those artists helped me get through. I can’t write about Slowdive, Henryk Gorecki, or The Cocteau Twins and not write about the way they opened my heart and soul to beauty. And I can’t write about Pedro The Lion or Ester Drang and not mention the way these artists impacted my own personal faith.

Somehow, I doubt any of this stuff makes my reviews the easiest to read, though hopefully they’re interesting at the very least. But I can rarely do it any other way. To try and ignore it all seems to miss much of the point of why I listen to music in the first place. So bear with me as I get really meta while discussing Black Moth Super Rainbow’s Start A People.

If you don’t want to wade through a bunch of internal junk, and just want to know my opinion of the CD, then here’s “The Official Opus Press Clipping”: “It’s like Boards of Canada and Neutral Milk Hotel sitting down with Wayne Coyne to record a children’s album inspired by the sounds of late 70’s video games and public television fare such as 3 – 2-1 Contact and The Letter People, with an episode or two of Doctor Who thrown in for good measure.” Now that that’s out of the way, prepare for a journey through my own meta-narrative, if you will.

When I first started listening to Start A People, I was immediately reminded of two things. First was Pitchfork’s “10.0” review of the recent re-issue of Boards of Canada’s landmark Music Has the Right to Children. Mark Richardson writes “Boards [of Canada] managed to evoke childhood without seeming cute or twee. It’s childhood not as it’s lived but as we grown-ups remember it, at least those of us with less-than-fond recollections.” Which dovetails quite nicely with Black Moth Super Rainbow’s own artistic statement: “Black Moth Super Rainbow is made up of 3 to 6 members at any given time, who are focused on turning their childhood memories into songs.”

Which dovetails quite nicely into the second leg of this meta-trip. A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with some friends, and our conversation turned to the TV shows we watched as kids. There were some common ones, such as Airwolf, Knight Rider, and The A-Team. But when two of us started talking about the public television we watched as young uns, the others, who were several years younger, just stared at us with quizzical expressions while we talked about Marian the Librarian and the late 70’s output of the Children’s Television Workshop.

I devoured those shows as a grade schooler, either at home when I was sick or on vacation, or when the teachers decided to let us watch one in class. But that was 20+ years ago, and even the shows’ titles have faded from memory. But what does remain is the incidental music that accompanied those shows, or at least my memories of what I think the music was like.

To this day, stray melodic scraps will suddenly pop into my head only to disappear just as quickly, and I can still sing much of the theme song to “Marian the Librarian.” But such things always remain hazy at best — a fact that is both warmly nostalgic and somewhat unsettling. And listening to Start A People, Black Moth Super Rainbow’s second full-length, brings all of those half-decayed memories rushing back, and they’re just as hazy, nostalgic, and vaguely unsettling as ever.

A lot of that has to do with the very sounds the band uses. Much of Black Moth Super Rainbow’s sound palette will be very familiar to anyone who knows Boards of Canada’s music. Both groups share an affinity for lilting, slightly off-key analog sounds and murky, warped textures that are as lovely as they are because they sound so drowsy, as if on the verge of waking up though still half-dreaming.

However, Black Moth Super Rainbow takes a decidedly lo-fi approach to their music, making already warbly, indistinct sounds even moreso by saturating them with tape hiss and vinyl crackle, which gives their music a certain intimacy and charm not found in Boards of Canada’s music. Also, unlike Boards, crashing drums often propel the songs, achieving a careening balance not unlike the opening moments of The Soft Bulletin or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Vocoderized voices can occasionally be heard drifting and flickering throughout, humming short little sun-drenched snippets like “Sundown came late today/When we die we go away” (“Vietcaterpillar”), “I’ll just stand in the meadow/I’ll be taken by sunbeams/So goodbye” (“I Think It Is Beautiful That You Are 256 Colors Too”), and “I can’t believe in butterflies/Think about life and rainbows and death/And all of the things you’ve heard” (“Smile Heavy”). Though certainly trite and precious-like, such sentiments seem wholly appropriate for these nostalgia-ridden tunes.

When the band pensively intones “The sun came up late/Tomorrow never came” (“Hazy Field People”) amidst mellow acoustic guitars and fluttery synths, it encapsulates the sentiment expressed by anyone who hasn’t wanted to grow old, who has wished to remain in their (idealized) childhood. But I think the band realizes this as well — that any attempt to recapture youthful dreams can only succeed for just a moment before it too eventually fails, leaving one all the more wistful for recapturing what has been lost. We end up feeling the loss all the more keenly, and it’s that inherent tragedy that explains why Start A People music is as beautiful, beguiling, and wondrous as it is.

And I think it would be impossible, and even pointless, to try to describe it any other way.

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