Common Rotation - isalie 
Music Disc Reviews Audio CD
Written by Abbie Bernstein   
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

format:    16-bit CD
performance:    9
sound:    8
release year:    2006
label:    Common Rotation
reviewed by:    Abbie Bernstein

Common Rotation seem to partially reinvent themselves from album to album, moving from garage pop/alt rock on their debut 28 Orange Street to a rockier sound on The Big Fear to an eclectic combination on their EP Clear Channel. With Common Rotation Isalie, they’ve embraced folk music styles that run from the 1960s back to the late 1800s. A lot of the compositions and arrangements sound as though they’ve been preserved from past decades, but in fact, they’re the present-day work of the band. One of the great things about Isalie is that it demonstrates there’s no need for a type of music to go away or for people to stop writing/performing it, even if it’s not the broad trend of the day.

Common Rotation core lead singers/songwriters/musicians Eric Kufs and Adam Busch are joined here in the primary lineup by musician/songwriter/backup singer Jordan Katz. Other musicians and vocalists – Common Rotation’s regular percussionist Ken Beck, They Might Be Giants’ Brian Speiser (who also produced this album with the band), Pink Nasty, and Dustbowl Cavaliers’ Matt Young and Ryan Raddatz – make guest appearances on various songs.

Katz’s horn makes a major musical contribution to the opening track, “Auctioneer,” which begins with tense, individually-picked guitar strings. The vocals slide in, first gentle, then soaring, as the tune crests. Busch and Kufs put beautiful vocal harmonies in the service of lyrics concerned with selling out: “You bargain all your time here …” The acoustic guitar sparkles throughout the haunting, bracing melody. “How to Lose” starts off musically like a bluegrass lament, with hard-strummed guitar and swirling fiddle, before breaking into defiant verse that includes “See, I don’t believe in you/But I want you to feel that I do …” and “I am praying for World War Three” in what sounds like a thoroughgoing expression of mistrust and disillusionment. “All Smiles” is arranged like a soothing lullaby, with a gently-picked guitar, subtle strings, a bit of harmonica and Kufs singing reassuringly, “Nature is a terrorist/God is an egotist …” as the song takes the point of view of a Katrina survivor who, despite losing everything, including perhaps even the goodwill of the Almighty, is “all smiles tonight.”

“With My Trumpet in My Hand” is a truly funny one-sided conversation with God, where singer Busch alternates between cajoling (“Lord, who’s a good guy?”), fretting (“Lord, you worry me”) and sheer frustration (“Lord, can’t you see that we’ve won?”). The lyrics are original in their specifics and universal in illustrating a lot of people’s attitudes towards both divine and earthly authority – just tell me what you want already! Even the instrumentation fits the mood, with a kind of peeking-round-the-door, I-can-come-back-if-you’re-busy hesitation in the precise finger plucking. When Kufs joins in vocally, the effect is to make the words even more plaintive and imploring – and amusing.

After a brief minor-chord intro, “Color Guard” starts with an incoming tidal cascade of notes, picked and strummed, with some underlying strings and trading off on lead in the harmonized vocals on another song about inevitable trade-offs and losses. “While the sedation occurs/Something else is stirred …” This is one of the most sonically beguiling tracks on the album, with a great sense of urgency, sorrow and wonder. For a moment, “True Hollywood Romance” (which got a very different arrangement on Clear Channel) starts off as though Kufs and Busch are about to revisit Dwight Yoakam’s cover of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” They instead launch into an energetic tune that sounds like a cheerful campfire singalong, with strummed guitar and upbeat harmonies, about showbiz self-delusion – “Invest yourself in one more trance!” – and sweating over pleasing unimaginative executives – “Yes, it’s important what they might say/They all stay put with a vengeance.”

The sweet notes of a glockenspiel begin “It’s Always More Than Once Before It Takes,” which switches to a slightly martial strum, with complimentary drum riff, on an upbeat number about persistence in all things, love included: “I could go for a good ‘Would you be mine?’” one of the lyrics says. There’s a great outro, with Katz’s horn and the receding background vocals slyly evoking Simon & Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy.”

“Given Signs” starts with finger-picking up and down the guitar fretboard, with a rolling rhythm and a soulful harmonica kicking in, at last joined by Kufs’ rueful vocals about leaving one set of dichotomies for another: “It’s a fear of believing/Believing all of this could never end.”

“Don’t breathe,” Busch advises at the top of “Gone Dyin’.” The song puts warm vocal harmonies and sprightly, high-spirited guitar in service to lyrics about death and the way most of us try not to talk about it: “I’m gonna die someday/That’s all that you never can say …” “Normal Sea” is a lovely song with twining instruments – guitar and strings sliding around one another – and likewise interwoven vocals as Kufs and Busch trade off leads and harmonies as regret is expressed for “lesson learned” and daring gestures that don’t mean much: “A righteous and unthreatening moral stand …” Musically, “Plan Ahead” sounds almost like square-dance music, with fiddle, banjo, ukulele or mandolin, percussion, what seems like an accordion and an insistent guitar beat. Baseball analogies mix with a plaint against a lover who first insisted the singer tone down his personality, then split: “I was so full of ideas/In just as many years/You cut ‘em down/Then you weren’t around.”

“Smile and the Whole World Leaves With You” is driven by old-time banjo and guitar in a song that feels as though it’s about connections that frustrate more than they fulfill and that are taken too seriously: “If it isn’t funny, then it isn’t true …” “Union Dues” is the most buoyant track on the album (Kufs’ solo rendition on his super-unplugged Dust Bowl o’ Cherries CD is likewise infectious), as it talks about thinking on how to improve what might be a relationship (a union), a job or life in general, “because that’s my right, being right or wrong.” The lyrics are contentious but not ready to concede defeat – “Ain’t got time for these blues” – and the guitar, strings and vocals all meld into an increasingly invigorating musical blast.

“Put My Little Shoes Away” is a traditional song performed in a very traditional arrangement. The extreme sentiment of the lyrics (from the point of view of a dying child) doesn’t seem to entirely match the tone of the performance, though it fits conceptually with the album overall. Busch and Kufs’ delivery is strong over a bed over slowly strummed guitar and high ukulele notes. “Wasted Words” has guitar and vocal harmonies, with some fiddle kick, in a lament over poor communication and what it takes to listen sometimes: “I pledge my patience to this hard-luck story …”

I don’t pretend to understand the lyrics enough to point to a through-line for all the songs on Common Rotation Isalie, but there’s a feeling of cohesion here in both musicality and themes that makes the album work as a unified whole, as well as being a collection of fine songs. For that matter, I confess I am stumped by the album’s title, which breaks down to Common Rotation Is A Lie. Well, alas, Common Rotation is not much in radio rotation and it’s certainly not common, so in that sense, perhaps the band’s name is a bit misleading. “Is a lie” probably refers to something else altogether, but what the hey – Common Rotation Isalie is an excellent album, and that’s no lie.

Producers Brian Speiser and Common Rotation recorded some of the tracks in the studio and some during tour gigs; it’s a measure of the skill of the engineers that it’s hard to tell which were recorded where. There is air around the instruments, but never too much, just enough to give the performances a live, immediate sound. The vocals are always smooth and inviting. The voices and instruments never threaten to overwhelm each other – they’re always in just the right proportion in the mix.

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