Enter The Weird: Emby Alexander’s Frontispiece

Front Cover Photo by Troy Farah

There is a bizarre formula to the quirky chamber pop that Emby Alexander produces. They are at once composing a nervous aesthetic that will amplify your anxiety while soothing your mindset, they prey on your mental illness and entice you to love them, they abuse your senses, but hold you tight long into the night. They have developed a unique ideal for their own brand of indie rock, composed of influences that evoke nightmares, orgasms, love affairs and obsessions, with a fierce attention to art and compositional genius, they approach their songs like pocket symphonies and deliver them like power pop performed like an orchestra. They are perhaps, one of the strangest revelations in local indie rock I’ve ever heard and I’ve loved them since the start. Their first full length album Frontispiece puts up a damn fine argument for their existence and why you should fall for a band featuring the weirdest instrument lineup since The Feelies Crazy Rhythms.

It amazes me that, at the heart of it, Frontispiece is really the work of primarily five musicians, with visionary, chief architect and vocalist Michael Alexander at the helm surrounding himself with Tim Arimborgo  (glockenspiel, guitars, vocals, percussion),  Kyle Grabski  (electric bass, upright bass, recorder, tympani, conch shell, piano, wood blocks, whirly tubes, gong),  Austin Harshman  (guitars, vocals, harmonicas, pitched glass bottles) and  Max Weidle on drums.  Add to this core group a handful of specialists and across these twelve tracks you have one of the most unique and compelling release of the year so far–certainly one of the most artistic in a cyclic, compositional sense First of all, and I’ve made this comparison before, Michael Alexander’s voice reminds me of David Byrne and Talking Heads is one of my top ten bands of all time, so I have a natural affinity for everything he does. Secondly, Emby Alexanders brand of full speed chamber pop and ecstatic arrangements just gets my mind into gear with its multi-instrumental layers, incandescent percussion and a swirling sense of gentle psychosis. This is the kind of music my soul yearns for constantly.

Call it “chamber pop” or “baroque pop” or whatever you want to name it, the album opener  “Come Breathe The Downstairs Air”, with cello courtesy of Cynthia Alexander and Patricia Soria, seems like something of an invocation to their sound. It’s part pop, part rock, part orchestra, part religious hate letter to an absent guardian angel. It’s damned interesting territory to discover, especially for an introduction. “Spectral Gating” is a one minute introduction to the next song, which is odd since “Sleeping in the Library” has a fifteen second introductory piece at the start of it, so it’s an introduction to an introduction. Honestly, you’re not sure what to expect with that brief intro bit that is simply echoed vocals and heavy toms, but when the rest of the band explodes and the toms disappear it is a swift transportational moment that blows your mind, with guitars crashing and layers upon layers of vocals. The lyrics “Left up to me, I’d have my way, you won’t say no, no no no” will be ringing in my head all season, nay, all year long. It was an easy choice for the first single from the album.

As “Lower Come Closer” takes hold, I begin to think that Michael Alexander is  the Phoenix equivalent of Van Duke Parks, may maybe the modern day equivalent regardless of region–the way he composes instrumentation that would often be akin to orchestral arrangements  and incorporates them into a pop rock encapsulation is genius.  Meanwhile “Don’t Go To Bed Tonight”, which is only a minute and a half long, but it haunts me eternally and it seems like they can bend time making the song sound like it is much longer than it’s running time with the repeated lyrics, ” don’t go to bed tonight, for it may be your last time. and what if we all wake up tomorrow, don’t even bother getting out of bed because…”  During the two minute intro piece to “E Major Baroque Youthful” there is a clear evocation of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE and that feeling is not lost during the entire song, which also returns to the realm of Van Dyke Parks and Summery song cycling. It is the end of the first half of the album and it is a mini-masterpiece unto itself. There is an areligious spirituality to this number that can’t be defined, the mantra at the end is provided by James Kufeldt, but other than that, this is the core quintet exploding their virtues upon you.

What follows is two songs in further study of religiosity and the stance here seems undecided as it is approached in two movements of “Tallwave” and “Tallwave Movement II” The first is almost a hymn with the repeated verses of “Ain’t I christlike, anti christlike , yes I’ll be your son, guess I’ll be your son.” It finishes with a choral delivery of “When invite there, say goodnight then, then we’ll bike there and we’ll fight there.” This delivery only add more when the first verse is given as near of straight out rock’n'roll treatment in the second movement. The effect of the two tracks as two movements is astounding and it is possibly one of the most fascinating moments of the entire album. The arrangements alone between the two and the obvious play on words, the juxtaposition of styles–all of it reeks of confused genius trapped in a world that shouts of hypocrisy shrouded in faith and vica versa.

“Sexting My Friends” should be the candidate for the second single from Frontispiece. I say this because every time it comes on, I just think it’s the catchiest fucking pop song I’ve heard in ages and I often have to play it two or three times until I’m completely satisfied. Completely endrenched in a 60s sensibility that would make The Kinks jealous. The song is one giant chorus with a bridge and it’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve heard in a while, an anachronistic hook, lyrically perfect for our modern times: “And you’re sexting my friends, and you’ll drive with your knees, did you think they’ve never tell me, well true to loyalty they did, truth through loyalty they did.” Seriously, you have to hear it to believe it. If I ever meet Ray Davies, I’m playing this song for him.  To follow that it has to be something great and “Lay Your Wet Hair Down” features a larger than life sound courtesy and Aaron Hjalmarson on drums, K.S. Garner supplying vocals along with the “Sounds of the Southwest Singers” delivering a full on gospel review of a song that appears to talk about making love after being to exhausted to drive after a shower. That’s a simplistic metaphor for the song, but it’s a beautiful way about getting at that in a very large but innocent manner.

“Losing Your Teeth” simply continues the beauty and in this case plays with more experimentation in recorded sound than many of the other tracks. In this song it is the vocals that are manipulated that provide and interesting rollercoaster ride as the Alexander explores perhaps the most lyrically obscure delivery in that it appears to be a metaphor wrapped in, perhaps another metaphor–other than the idealization of a perpetual loss of innocence we feel as we all grow older and more experienced, I haven’t the faintest notion what this may elude to in any capacity. I love it all the more for that. This is also one of Alexander’s finest vocal performances on the album. Frontispiece concludes with “Make Me Feel Unsafe Again,” which, as was orchestrated perfectly, is the perfect finale to this wonderful debut song cycle. It features Austin Owen (Ladylike, Petty Things, Los Puchos, Wooden Indian) on organ and some of the most psychologically deep poetry offered on the album lyrically. It’s not a metaphor this time, it’s analysis and a request, a plead for surprise and original thought within a life and existence, nay a world where perhaps sometimes the most exciting things are happening inside your own head, rather than beyond it.

Every time I finish listening to Frontispiece, I think the same thought: this might possibly be the best album of the year. It is startlingly beautiful, surprising, immaculately orchestrated and supremely enjoyable. My true hope is that, though I know they kicked off their tour with an album release show at Crescent, when they return, they throw a proper release party for this amazing work of art, one with a carnivalesque attitude where the album is performed in its entirety and there are people in monster costumes on stilts. It seems to be that kind of album that deserves that kind of release. I know that every time I play it, I smile at the sun and thank the universe for the presence of Emby Alexander in my life. I invite you to make it a part of your life as well. Frontispiece is embedded in my mind for eternity and it’s done a great engraving job on my soul.

Be sure to catch Emby Alexander as they celebrate their homecoming from a summer long tour this Saturday, September 6th at Lost Leaf. They will be joined by Genre and B.O.T.S., the show is free and the music will be out of this world! In the meantime, enjoy this wonderful album below.