If the first thing that a label like “Ivy Rock” brings to mind is a group of Dartmouth dorks armed with kazoos, theories of linear deconstruction, and a peculiarly intense affinity for John Cage, you need to listen to Filligar–the latest in Culturespill’s “Best Bands You’ve Never Heard Of” series. OK, so maybe they ARE from Dartmouth–well, three of them, at least (twin bros Teddy and Pete Mathias and their un-twin younger brother Johnny)–and maybe they’re named after a pet goldfish, but they’ve already cranked out six albums since 2000 even though their combined age is still younger than your grandmother, with the eldest being a wily 19. That kicks ass in any book; and with more albums in eight years than most bands put out in two decades, it’s hardly surprising that The City Tree and Succession, I Guess, two of their most recent efforts, betray a maturity reserved for the established influences their music reveals–bands like Wilco, The Flaming Lips, or even Hot Hot Heat.
Tempering the incorrigible mania of Bloc Party or The Long Winters with the quirky power-pop of Wilco’s “I Can’t Stand it,” Filligar’s work lacks only the chiseled cohesiveness those more seasoned influences offer–in other words, they’re young. Their erratic sensibilities–at once supine and spastic, mellow one minute and manic the next–occasionally tug their songs in directions that catch even the most experienced listener off guard. They deny no detour and take every foreseeable turn, and if the results are mixed at times, they almost always deliver something you haven’t quite heard before–no rare feat in a market overwhelmed by enough indie bands to invade and conquer several small nations.
The taut and blistering rocker “Yanni Walker,” a tune that threatens to make the grade on our best of the year lists this fall, exhibits a disciplined focus that occasionally eludes 17-year-old vocalist Johnny Mathias (look, the kid’s 17–give him a break), whose initial whispers on “Purple Gum Weather” wander through an occasionally explosive series of vocal peaks and valleys carried home only by the song’s gorgeous and haunting production. Johnny Mathias finds a voice of his own when he settles down to belt a wistful wail and ask “Where are you now? Where are you now?” amid a broken-hearted crash of shuffling percussion and organ.
The ballad, truly one of the album’s most affecting and mature moments, evokes the mastered melancholy of The Eels’ “Counting Numbered Days” and delivers the poetry of a great Flaming Lips dirge, with its “blue wind sweeping away the night.” Johnny struggles just as mightily to reign in his boundless enthusiasm on tracks like “Peppermint” as he yelps his way through in a kind of restrained frenzy, but the band serves up more than the modest helping of charm that saves several songs.
Sparkling with considered melodies and deft musicianship, Filligar’s youth may manifest itself in a few overambitious flourishes at times–where the hell does that chintzy burst of synthesizer come from at the close of “Big Things”?–but, ultimately, this is a band that’s ripening into a sound of its own far earlier that any aforementioned idol. I defy anyone who fell for the Flaming Lips the first time a friend turned them on to The Soft Bulletin to try sitting through more than ten minutes of Telepathic Surgery. And if you think you’re a Pink Floyd fan because you’ve had one of 30 million copies of Dark Side of the Moon somewhere under the driver’s seat of your Jetta for a few years, try surviving the first track of Ummagumma, no less the first ten minutes–just don’t invite anyone over when you do it, and have a barf bag handy.
Plenty of bands stew in their own imaginations well into their twenties before stumbling into the fruition of their promise. But here’s a band whose lead singer can’t even vote yet, and they’re tossing off arrangements like “Fruit Fly” that rival Wilco’s “Pieholden Suite” or McCartney’s epic “Rinse the Raindrops” in their complexity and range. Both Succession, I Guess and The City Tree flash with the developing maturity of a young band that threatens to grab the world by the throat and howl in its face before long–just as soon as they register for Fall classes and submit their senior portfolios. “Right now our education is the top priority for all of us,” Teddy says, “But during our vacations we spend almost everyday writing songs, practicing, playing shows and recording–our vacation time previews what life will be like for us after graduation.” It also previews what life might be like for fans when they can do this full time–and it looks good. Very, very good.