Mount Righteous-- When the Music Starts
Mount Righteous is fucking adorable. If you don't believe me, just take a look at that picture over there to the right. The first thing you'll probably notice is the pretty girls with the melodicas and the stylish clothes. Very cute, very sweet. Also note that everyone in the group makes funny, goofy faces in their press photos, just in case you thought they took life seriously. They totally don't! You can also see that the band's line up features an accordion player, a tuba, a little drummer boy, and two different people who actually play the goddamn trombone, all of which helps to assure any curious parties that this isn't your average every day indie rock band.
Everything about this photo propagates Mount Righteous' image as a group of "young at heart" band dorks sitting in the back of the school bus fussing with their instruments. People who have a soft spot for Napoleon Dynamite and Say Anything will love this stuff for sure, and come to think of it, anyone who has a soft spot for pretty much anything is probably supposed to like this band, because Mount Righteous is all about soft spots. For example, take their "songbook" style CD insert that encourages listeners to sing and play along to their music as if it were an album of children's Christian tunes. Or how about their "joyful" audience participation shtick during live shows? There's also the bright, child-like art work on their album cover, the "sunny optimism" and "all together now" pseudo religious zeal scattered throughout their lyrics sheet, as well as the overtly "zany" collectivist vibe that the group projects at all times. All of these traits come together as part of Mount Righteous' overwhelmingly positive image-- one that is seemingly designed to wow people with the sheer audacity of happiness while warming their hearts with cuddly cuteness. This kind of hyper-positivity can either be grating or refreshing, depending on who you ask and who you're asking about, but when you consider the excited manner in which this group presents itself to the outside world, you might be inclined to believe that cute is the new punk rock. At least in Dallas.
Of course, the problem is that cute HAS been the new punk rock. Time and time again. Since, like, 1979. From Swell Maps to Shop Assistants to Television Personalities to The Pastels to Beat Happening, cute naivety and tongue in cheek innocence have existed as long standing image options for arty underground kids who didn't mesh with the perceived machoism that existed within a musical subculture that they weren't quite willing to separate themselves from completely. There isn't anything wrong with this approach on its face, of course, and it's true that all of the aforementioned artists have emerged as subculture legends, beloved by critics and fans alike for decades. And rightly so.
Beat Happening, for example, boldly embraced lo-fi recording techniques as an artistic choice while allowing the outward cuteness of their collective persona to cleverly but not fully hide a darker and more complex emotional and sexual undertone that secretly went home and listened to Cramps records after self aware sock hops in Olympia. Swell Maps experimented in punk rock, noise and the avant garde with the unbridled enthusiasm of children, and Television Personalities took innocence to a whole new level as they basically invented the concept of twee with their poppy take on early English post-punk. Oh, and one more thing-- all of these bands wrote and performed incredibly groundbreaking music, rendering their precious images just one part of their overall appeal-- an intriguing backstory rather than the whole story.
Mount Righteous are clearly tapping into this three decade old twee/cute/whatever aesthetic to craft an image for themselves as a group of zany outsiders, and although it certainly isn't a common choice for north Texas bands, it's really nothing new in the grand scheme of things. Again, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with recycling or building on images of underground rock's past, and a relatively new local band can't be expected to start a revolution the way the aforementioned groups did. But if the group isn't breaking any new ground with their militantly positive outlook, then what is it about Mount Righteous that has so many Dallasites excited? After listening to When the Music Starts, the band's debut full length, it's pretty clear that the selling point couldn't possibly be the music. Could it? Really? Ok, fine. We'll talk about it.
The most simple way to put it is that Mount Righteous basically sounds like a marching band with singers. The obvious reference points here are Danielson Family, Sufjan Stevens and Polyphonic Spree (not to mention locals Teenage Symphony), but unfortunately, nothing Mount Righteous does is nearly as subversive, thought provoking or intellectually developed as the bands mentioned in the previous paragraph, nor is their work as proficiently poppy as that of the groups mentioned in this one. The record kicks off with "The Feeling You Bring," and its clearly the album's high point, delivering a kind of Latin/African High Life infused rhythm via a mariachi-like arrangement with hand claps and chaotic choral singing that declares "when the music starts we all get together/and we dance and sing and love one another." Whatever. It certainly sounds quite a bit different from just about any other local act currently performing, and it's catchy and messy enough to work rather well as an opener. The next track, "Sea Man," is probably supposed to be the album's first "single," and it's another fairly solid example of what the group does right, melding a catchy vocal melody with a somewhat charming lyrical narrative and a mostly effective, polka-like arrangement from Casey Colby and Joey Kendall.
After these first two mostly solid tracks, however, When the Music Starts takes a rather unfortunate turn for the worst, and it never really recovers. Everything starts blending together in a rather unpleasant way beginning with track 3, "Christmas Accordion," which actually contains the lyrics "You're a Christmas Accordion, according to me/counting your calories accordingly/pumpkin pie means something to me." Shit, I hope no one ever says that shit to me. As the bad lyrics, Fa La Las and handclaps continue to annoyingly overwhelm throughout the album's progression, it starts to become clear that Mount Righteous, at this point, is little more than a one trick pony. One or two cutesy, horn dominated happy pop songs are one thing, but 11 of them stacked back to back is more than a little much, especially considering the fact that John Congleton's ultra-clean, big room production permits the group no room to attempt anything even remotely sonically interesting. The only break comes in the form of "About the Things You Are," a relatively calm, quite love song that would come off as charming if you didn't have to sit through the seven tracks that proceed it.
Again, the problem isn't really with Mount Righteous' intentions, but rather with their execution. The group has borrowed heavily from the past to create their group persona, and that is fine. They're super positive, and that's fine too. Christ, even the marching band set up could work with the right songs and the right production. But as things are now, Mount Righteous is a band that has garnered respect due mostly to their eventful live shows, and their debut provides very little to add to their resume. If the music is grating and the imagery breaks no new ground, then you're left with something that could fairly be called gimmicky. And the only thing positive about that is that it leaves Mount Righteous a lot of room for improvement.
(1.5 of 5)
(1.5 of 5)