Review: Belong, Common Era

A thunderstorm can be awe-inspiring, but it also doesn’t give a shit whether or not you get bored halfway through.

Belong, Common EraAmong the more amusing things I’ve read in a press release: Belong promises that their new album, Common Era, will contain “such common pop elements as ‘songs,’ vocals and drum machines”—after which they insist that, even so, there will be nothing “conventional” about the final product. That’s a typifying statement for the New Orleans duo, descendents of an experimentally minded rock vanguard (Can, Meddle-era Pink Floyd, My Bloody Valentine) for whom the song is exactly the type of commercial specimen that deserves to be scare-quoted and dissected under a microscope. Making good on their somewhat condescending promise, Belong takes the ambient noise-rock of their October Language LP and recalibrates it for a slightly less overwhelming listen.

And I do mean slightly: While Common Era steps back from the frightening density of the duo’s debut, Belong’s compositions still churn and bluster like the wrath of a primeval thunder deity who listens exclusively to Krautrock. But singing plays a more prominent role this time out, with “Never Came Close” and “A Walk” deriving much of their hypnotic power from their vocal melodies. Those vocals are likely to be submerged under a torrent of feedback or washed out by a flood of synthesizers suggesting an Italian horror flick as soundtracked by M83, but when they’re decipherable they demonstrate Belong’s considerable pop smarts as little else on the album does. They provide a glimpse of something human, which is to say something fragile and pretty that always ends up getting crushed by the high-gravity sonics conjured up around them.

“Elemental” is one of the adjectives most frequently appended to Belong’s work; since October Language was released in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was easy to hear that record as a channeling of both the storm and the subsequent dissolution of the duo’s home city. But working against that album’s elemental aspect was an embrace of artifice, in the sense of craftsmanship, that’s sorely missed on Common Era. Unpredictable as they often were, the songs on October Language evolved with gathering density, fading and collapsing in exhilarating payoff moments that gave the difficult record its redemptive moments. Meanwhile, the pop concessions on Common Era consist largely in truncated runtimes, even though Belong clearly works better in panoramic proportions.

Too often the tracks on Common Era rage and billow for four minutes and then end abruptly without having arrived at an interesting conclusion. It’s no accident that the opening track, “Come See,” is both the album’s best and second-longest composition. The shorter tracks that follow are sometimes disappointingly static, at other times over-reliant on sonic overload as a consummating tactic. The second half of the album is equally divided between engaging and misfired genre exercises: “Make Me Return” is bracing, atmospheric noise-pop; “Common Era” is a sluggish motorik retread. Elemental, indeed: A thunderstorm can be awe-inspiring, but it also doesn’t give a shit whether or not you get bored halfway through.

 Label: Kranky  Release Date: March 21, 2011  Buy: Amazon

Matthew Cole

Since 2016, Matthew Cole has been a Preceptor of Expository Writing in the Harvard College Writing Program.

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