It’s been four long years since I raved over Seattle’s The Melody Unit’s seminal Choose Your Own Adventure to my friends and in our Hall of Fame 2001. Since that time, there’s been nary a trace of released music by this band. Admittedly a favourite of mine with their enticing blend of pop melodies mixed with subliminal ambient leanings, The Melody Unit seemed to drop off of the face of the earth. After amazing listeners with their well-crafted Choose Your Own Adventure, a CD that seemed to hint towards a more pop-oriented approach to music that featured song writing more prominently, the band disappeared. But, after an extended time of songwriting by lead vocalist and group visionary Kevin Kelly, The Melody Unit has released Songs for the New American Century in late summer, 2005. Without missing a beat in their metronomic space pop sound, the and even continues to follow the logical conclusion of their poppier previous release, eschewing for the most part the dramatic psychedelic ambient forays found on Odds Against Tomorrow. Songs for the New American Century is what results, a highly catchy pop record that gives a slight nod to atmospheric soundscapes.
It’s hard to be objective and not giggle with giddiness over hearing Kelly’s signature guitar lines, or drummer Mark Salvadena’s stiff but perfect drum beats. Indeed, all of the elements of past Melody Unit releases appear, from the group’s rich male/female harmonies, to the fluid guitar work, to a slightly western feel (listen to the desert-invoking lead guitar on “Memento Mori”), to the whimsical pop writing, and even an occasional psychedelic exploration that proves that the band is still capable of tripping-out with the best of them (“Exercise 1” and “Exercise 2” are perfect examples of this: one jam extended over two tracks that shows the band revelling in the splendour of lazy guitars and warbling keyboards, all combining to play a melody that makes time seem to stand still). Songs for the New American Century, though released 4 years after the band’s last release, even features all of the same players on the last Melody Unit release, save for the replacement of the gorgeous vocals of Jessica Folsolm with an equally gifted and more sultry Emma Valentiner. Indeed, The Melody Unit triumphs on this CD, and the band further develops their own distinct style through their restrained by masterful playing, and irresistible melodies.
However, to say that Songs for the New American Century is, “a Melody Unit, only less dreamy and more pop” does a disservice to readers who may have not heard the band play before. This incarnation of the band features linear pop songs that remind the listener of Stereolab in their quirky yet appealing melodies. Featuring tight drum structures, a steady bass line and under girds the music, sparkling keyboard accents and prominent lead guitars that rarely veer off into distorted territory (and that also often carry the melody just as much as the Kelly/Valentiner combo), The Melody Unit creates arrangements that are just as smart as their songs. The music is coated in a thin veneer of delay and reverb, bringing to mind such colleagues as The Lassie Foundation, the less druggy songs of Slowdive, and Starflyer 59. The end result is a satisfying blend of atmosphere and songcraft, and this interplay is in full effect even on this most straightforward of Melody Unit releases.
The most curious aspect of Songs for the New American Century for this fan of the band is not, as I thought, the inclusion of a new vocalist, which I thought would radically alter the band’s chemistry (indeed, Valentiner, though not an imitation of Folsolm, is close enough to the previous vocalist with her similarly unassuming but slightly more prominent voice). Rather, it’s Kelly’s lyrics, which on previous releases were abstract enough to leave the listener guessing, that rise the eyebrows this time around. On “The Plea Before the Scream”, the band has Valentiner sweetly singing venomous a tirade against the powers that be, including a reference to “that oily Texan” that sounds so innocent when sung in Valentiner’s soft voice. Kelly really revs up on the irresistible sounding “Clergy on Fire”, which rails against organized religion, Christianity in particular (indeed, Christian listeners may be put off by this song…even though the chorus of “The Word is wrong” is so undeniably catchy). On the aforementioned “Memento Mori”, Kelly refers to lost faith again, which may alienate some Christian listeners further. The delicious thing about these three songs is that all three are, in my opinion, the catchiest of the bunch, and Kelly’s incredible ear for melodies is put on display during these songs. Other highlights of Songs for the New American Century include the spacey “Jill Pole”, with its gorgeous refrain, and “Soviet Disco”, with its mid-song shoegaze treatment. And though the lyrics of these songs may hint at other controversial topics, the lyrics settle into more interpretive territory.
So, what else can I say? After the long wait, the Melody Unit fans find their favourite band growing and developing their sound, without missing a beat or straying from the things that this band does so well. The new fan will appreciate the unique and well-thought out songwriting, while being intrigued by the hints of musical experimentation. The wait was worth it and The Melody Unit has crafted art that keeps revealing layers and layers of more talent and beauty. Christians and Republicans may not agree with some of the lyrical content, but there’s no denying the talent that is purely evident on Songs for the New American Century.