Sunday, October 30, 2011

Album Review: New Orleans Swim Team - To Be Something, To Be Anything

Here's an anecdote: On a sunny Saturday morning earlier this year, I sat crammed into the backseat of an undersized Toyota Corolla with four members of a family I did not know, driving the five hours from Pittsburgh to D.C. for a distant cousin's wedding. I had drank too much the night before, despite having told myself not to do so, repercussions of which were beginning to team up with the tingling cold sweat start of carsickness. As I laid my head back, closing my eyes and breathing in through my mouth to avoid the stagnant odor of an overly-perfumed woman and her sweating husband, trying to fight off the nausea and dizziness of my lingering intoxication and the impending hangover, I came to a realization that had never reached me before. In that moment of stifling discomfort, I saw the infinite chaos of the universe in its entirety, tangible and true, contained within a bead of perspiration on my forehead. All at once, my existence had become larger than life itself and I was the quintessential Romantic Hero - I looked upon the inexplicable bedlam of life's uncountably simultaneous chains of actions and reactions not with bewilderment or fear, but with an omniscient gaze of patience and understanding. In that ephemeral yet spectacular instant, I knew that I could and did know everything; at once I witnessed the movements of every molecule of every organism and understood their ways and purposes, I instantaneously calculated partial differential equations that could map solutions to any given occurrence and could distinguish which exploded star each and every atom had come from; I understood the motions of celestial bodies and the motivation behind every Titus Andronicus song. And just as the beauty and magnificence of this vision began to fully manifest itself atop that tiny droplet of sweat, with the entirety of cognizance that had eluded all of history's most gorgeous brains only centimeters from my grasp, I lost it. In another instant I had returned to the Corolla, aware only of my own infinite potential and the impossibility of its fruition.

I earnestly believe that Jacob Ulickij has had a similar moment of clarity somewhere along the way. Jacob's undying self-awareness in regards to what he'll never be in this world is the crooked and feeble backbone for his music. Fervently voicing the consequences of such acute awareness with the fearful words escaping his throat, and employing a slew of orchestral instruments to add simple, quirky musical backdrops to the effort, New Orleans Swim Team is born. His first release under the moniker, Sitting on Fences, was a lot of lyrical material packed into a mere 18-minutes. Despite the rudimentary nature of the instrumentation and a few forgettable moments, Jacob's songwriting and wordplay brought the album to life, affording the listener glimpses into the inner-workings of his confused and infinitely self-conscious mind. Now, in releasing the almost hour-long To Be Something, To Be Anything, Jacob has offered his listeners a no holds barred pass to witness his time as hero or anti-hero in his own life, the results of which are almost entirely favorable.

When Jacob doubts himself hardest, New Orleans Swim Team shines brightest. A line from 'Like Anchors' best sums up his common condition: "It's like in that split second you know what to say and how to say it, but instead of catharsis, you get lethargic and carsick." Plagued in his daily life by the knowledge of all that he can be but isn't, the kid suffers as any young adult might - the difference is his ability to articulate such tribulations. His delivery of such is entirely unique, perhaps closest in comparison to Jordan Dreyer's recordings on the La Dispute Here, Hear releases, but set over the orchestral soundscapes produced by Jacob and his close friends. TBS,TBA features minor improvements in this orchestration from the debut release, adding an overall more cohesive feel to individual tracks, but the real beauty of the ordeal lies in the songwriting. Jacob's incessant awareness of society's molds that he just can't seem to fit into break him down but effectively allow him to rise again through his music, a feat documented in a track like 'To Be Something', in which the fears of living up to the notion of adulthood are scrutinized: "I have the papers and a diploma, a card that says I can drive, plastic to fill a wallet and identify in the case I don't survive the head on crash of stubbornness and maturity." His difficulty in dealing with the unfair responsibilities afforded by life aren't unique to him, yet his capacity to put it all into words just might be. The result is as engaging as it is poetic, lending new life and attention to just how hard it is for certain individuals to cope to the impositions of a demanding culture.

There are a few things that To Be Something, To Be Anything is certainly not. For one, it isn't background music. It requires more from the listener, a loyal attention span that rewards with flashes of lyrical brilliance and intricacies that easily escape one's ear. It is best enjoyed actively and most likely fails to provide much pleasure to a passive audience. TBS,TBA is not beautiful music, per se - a true audiophile would most likely shudder to the unintentional dissonance and detachment of a track like 'Hide and Seek'. There are moments on the album that could be qualified as objectively bad music. Fat still needs to be trimmed, and awkward instances in the music still stand out. Yet it's as if Jacob knows this and doesn't mind at all; he hasn't come here to wow listeners with a powerful voice and epic soundscapes. Instead, he puts words to paper out of necessity, soothing his troubled mind with the cathartic utterances found throughout TBS,TBA. Just like Jacob, I'm quite aware of all that I can but don't know. What I do know is that it isn't often that one lonely kid's struggles results in music this captivating, and that we should be damn grateful as listeners that Jacob has done so.

Rating: A-


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