Palaxy Tracks: Cedarland (Peek-a-Boo, 2003)
by Rick Arnow
Anyone that’s listened to indie rock in the last 10+ years is familiar with the template: fuzzy guitars, solid bass, various buzzing/humming keyboards, busy (if particularly skilled, in this case) drumming, intimately personal lyrics, and a lead singer that’s not afraid to emote a little (tastefully, of course) – but it’s how Palaxy Tracks (think “galaxy” without the “g”) brings all these elements together in new and sometimes startling configurations that make Cedarland a warm and thoughtful record that verges on brilliance more than once throughout it’s 11 tracks.
Part of what holds the album together so tightly is Brandon Durham‘s voice and lyrics – a loose conceptual record about growing up and facing the ghosts of your past could easily fall into maudlin moping, but Durham‘s lyrics, while personal, nonetheless maintain an intriguing opacity which invites you to draw your own conclusions as to the scenarios mentioned throughout the record. Combine that with his unhurried tenor musings – he always seems to meander just the right amount of time before slipping you into the hook – and what could be a tedious indie pop exercise suddenly turns into something nearly revelatory.
But solid musicianship and a good set of pipes/lyrics do not a great record make. Luckily, Cedarland brings a top-notch ear for songwriting and arranging to the table, as well. While Palaxy Tracks‘ influences are evident – the incendiary and majestic dreampop of Galaxie 500, the drowsy wanderings of American Analog Set, Chicago’s sadly-missed Seam for the more rocking moments – each song boasts it’s own unique touches, whether it be the understated pedal steel on the countrified “Posthumous,” the drowsy and luminous drone of the title track, or the piano-drenched, Valium-induced, dance-inflected Britpop of “Aim for Providence.”
Cedarland (the name of an apartment complex where one band member grew up) was written at a transitional time for the band (a move from Austin to Chicago resulted in the four-piece stripping down to two core members), and nowhere is their sense of uncertainty and fragile optimism better depicted than in the head-rush guitars and solid rock back-beat of “To The Chicago Abyss.” While the song (actually the most full-throttle energetic one on the album) seems to convey a sense of headlong forward motion and optimism, it takes an abruptly more solemn turn as the guitars die down and Durham near-sighs “But if you believe that memories will make us older, then come back to Cedarland and pretend you’re younger.” While the song eventually picks back up and roars to a triumphant finish, it’s that one moment of arresting clarity that will stick with you, the realization that, as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again.
It’s the little transcendent moments like this (and there are more than a few sprinkled throughout the album) that elevate Cedarland up from your garden-variety indie rock album. While many bands tackle similar subjects, few do it with the same sense of dignity, of nearly literary elegance Palaxy Tracks is able to muster. Highly, highly recommended.
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