Ah, life. Isn’t it grand?
Ahem. For a more relevant example of post-rock’s gradual decline to pop, look no further than El Ten Eleven. Certainly this Los Angeles twosome operates well within the ostensible bounds of post-rock, at least with regards to rock journalist Simon Reynolds’s original (c. 1994) definition of the genre as the use of “rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes… guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords.”
In El Ten Eleven’s case, percussionist Tim Fogarty taps out intuitive beats on his acoustic and electric drum kits while guitarist/bassist Kristian Dunn monkeys around with a pristine-looking 1977 Carvin double-neck and a stage’s worth of effects pedals. United, the two produce a sound that manages to be remarkably complex yet undeniably accessible—think pop hooks and progressions mated to a the all-instrumental aesthetic of post-rock.
In person, Dunn takes on a look of rapt concentration whilst playing: lips pressed thin to keep hold of his guitar pick while he sets up a bass line or guitar riff, hammers on both fingerboards, and stomps away on his numerous pedals in a one-legged, arrhythmic version of Dance Dance Revolution. Essentially, Dunn is three musicians in one, as he plays both layered/looped rhythm and lead guitar segments with a warbling bass line tucked snuggly in-between. A similar paragon of focus, Fogarty is more a machine than a man. Just watch him: that furrowed brow, that near-flawless sense of timing, the ability to manage a sizeable drum kit and an electronic side kit simultaneously. It’s inhuman, really.
And yet, regardless of how impressive their individual talents may be, there is the unnerving feeling that Dunn and Fogarty have reduced themselves to writing pop songs. I mean, for the love of McCartney, there are hooks in their songs! Hooks! Those attention-grabbing, oft-repeated ad nauseum sequences of notes that form the backbone the just about every Top 40 song ever written. Even worse, many of El Ten Eleven’s songs are danceable—nay, groove-worthy—and few stretch beyond the five-minute mark.
That’s right: El Ten Eleven’s songs are accessible, straightforward, and entertaining.
Odd though it may seem, this is a rather begrudging complaint (well, the first two points, at least). Much like their self-titled 2005 debut album, El Ten Eleven’s sophomore offering, Every Direction is North, blurs the presupposed boundary between the instant gratification of pop-rock and the heady, evolution-in-movements majesty of post-rock. Understandably, the two do not mix all that well, so the listener ends up with something more along the lines of post-rock lite, or maybe avant-pop—instrumental rock with its fair share of intriguing flourishes that nevertheless fails to pursue its themes beyond the five-minute mark, or with the dynamism and experimental intensity that they truly deserve.
To their credit, El Ten Eleven know how to put their best face forward, as album-opener “3 Plus 4” deftly proves. The gradual layering of guitar and drum segments—from low-lying drone to bass riff to peppy snare and kick to chiming guitar to distorted riff to ringing licks and convoluted taps over snappy brass and toms culminating with subdued slap and pop under light pickwork—is understatedly impressive and pleasant to both your ears and to that groove-inclined part of your brain. Toes will tap and heads will bob, though the constant looping and layering of sounds, one overtop the other, inevitably betrays itself as mechanical and slightly repetitive.
While at their best with the gradual growth of tracks like “Every Direction is North” and “The 49th Day” and with the ambient noodling of “Music for Staring at Ceilings” and “Dax Pierson,” El Ten Eleven still fall prey to the limitations of their effects-augmented two-man approach. As evidenced in the pulsing Kraut-rock number “Hot Cakes” and the riff-heavy “Living on Credit Blues,” it does not matter how many pedals Dunn pushes or how many sounds he loops, El Ten Eleven cannot fully reproduce the three-or-more-way dynamic of a full band with just two people. To that effect, there will always be (at least) one portion of El Ten Eleven’s combined soundscape that plays catch-up with the others, overstays its welcome, or is regrettably absent from a rhythmic change-up.
Still, the very fact that Dunn and Fogarty are able to do what they do as a duo is extraordinary in and of itself, even if, at times, El Ten Eleven are just making due with two when three or more would be ideal. Even though Every Direction is North may be a lightweight entry into the greater post-rock pantheon, it is still an album worthy of your attention—or, alternatively, a great gateway album to discovering post-rock as a whole.
Audio Reviews (September 27th, 2007)
Tags: audio, review, el ten eleven, every direction is north, fake record label