Icarus Himself Coffins(Science of Sound / Swim Swim Munch) Buy it from Insound
Anyone familiar with the small-but-worthy music scene of Wisconsin's liberal and educational capital, Madison, likely knows Nick Whetro or at least his band, National Beekeepers Society. That particular outfit – an energetic quartet that channels Pavement's take on garage aesthetic and pairs it with Whetro's generally charming vocal delivery – certainly sounds familiar to Whetro’s Icarus Himself, but its definitely not an identical project with a fresh name. Pairing with NBS guitarist Karl Christenson to create IH, Coffins is mellower, softer, and all together more rewarding than NBS in an album format – but will remind fans of Whetro's other work that he's really best heard live.
In tune with Whetro's consistent taste for garage-pop and a comfortably disheveled sound, Coffins doesn't require steely concentration or avid fandom, but it does feature a welcome splash of textural focus and thematic cohesion. No, this album isn't an overly simple affair. Rather, Whetro takes what he does best – freewheeling pop songs flavored with a splash of sonic whiskey – and gives them more dynamism and a wider pallet of sounds than some of his other work. Instead of just a thrusting tempo and distorted fuzz, the title-track approaches energetic rock with pastoral washes of guitar and ethereal background vocals. The more growling Flatwoods, WV drapes noise over an early-Bowie guitar lick, but gives it folky structure a-la-Neutral Milk Hotel. And the Coffins incarnation of Scars slows the song’s tempo to a brooding pace, allowing delicate piano and groaning strings to highlight each moving lyric. Even better, IH’s songs aren’t just more varied; they also fit together cleanly and don’t feel disjointed like NBS’s somtimes explosive yet unmanageable tracks.
Coffins only falters briefly during its wisely succinct half-hour playtime, finding the shortest songs to be its best. But its weakest moments are not the product of overwriting or cumbersome ideas, but rather overt imitation. This Means Nothing is catchy but apes Neutral Milk Hotel so strongly its hard not to wish for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea instead. Sometimes I Can’t Stand You seems suspiciously similar to NBS's People’s Temple (though it is catchy), and Precedents takes too many unsuccessful liberties with its Spoon-like rhythmic production.
But even those critiques are nitpicky – Coffins is generally short, sweet, and easy to spin to a finish. On more jovial tracks like the aforementioned Precedents its easy to see why Madison loves NBS so much, though Whetro’s stage-charm would make Icarus Himself at its most upbeat even easier to love. And the slower tracks on Coffins, twangy and succinct, make this disc a worthy buy even without that live flavor. Icarus Himself might not be treading any new ground not already explored by Whetro or his influences, but Coffins does this playful retreating almost perfectly.30 July, 2009 - 20:42 — Michael Merline