Inserting moments of musical unrest into pop music without disturbing the graceful flow that makes pop songs so pleasurable is an incredibly difficult task. Even brief moments of dissonance can be distracting (occasionally one gets the feeling that they are intentional distractions from poor songwriting) or come off as forced, an insincere attempt to make a band sound more interesting or difficult than they really are. It requires a remarkably gentle touch to make dissonances and rhythmic quirks not only slip by without disrupting the song, but actually lock in and sound as if they are essential and natural, and this is, in fact, just the thing Tavo Carbone of Brooklyn’s Horse’s Mouth excels at.
Carbone’s songs are short and restless, full of small idiosyncrasies and twitches (beats added or missing, lush vocal harmonies appearing and disappearing just as fast, tempos that lurch and accelerate). You may feel like you’ve had your fill of idiosyncratic Brooklyn rock bands (lord knows I get that feeling sometimes), but the members of Horse’s Mouth are probably not quite what you are picturing after that description. There is nothing irritatingly or safely cool about them. Horse’s Mouth is actually refreshingly and genuinely nerdy. In live videos, they are mostly clad in white t-shirts and jeans and Carbone himself sports an unassuming Monkees-style bowl cut, opening his mouth cartoonishly wide and bowing his head to hit the lowest notes. After all, the band draws as much influence from showtunes (bear with me) and classical music as they do from the staples of indie pop. Their Ampeater B-side “Thin Branches Against a Window” actually ends with a loop from a familiar-sounding orchestral piece.
A Brooklyn native, Carbone met his bandmates, drummer J.J. Beck, bassist Matt Scott, violinist Heather Sommerlad, and multi-instrumentalist Michael Chinworth, at Bennington College, a school in Vermont that has produced other Ampeater favorites like Trevor Wilson (AEM022) and Will Stratton (AEM70). Carbone actually has quite a lot in common with Wilson, from his tightly coiled vibrato and theatrical delivery to his compositional and conceptual ambition. The members of Horse’s Mouth have been playing Carbone’s songs together in various forms and with various other musicians since 2005 (including, at one point, a 17 piece orchestra), though Horse’s Mouth as a band only officially dates back to 2008. You can hear the chemistry between the musicians almost immediately upon listening, and especially on watching some of the live footage shot by Connor Kammerer and Pixelhorse. The live performances are impressively faithful to the record without losing any of the feeling of fun and spontaneity that comes from the itchy arrangements.
A-side “In the Woods” (both songs in today’s single are drawn from the band’s new album Sophia, which will be released later this month in CD and DVD form, the latter featuring original films made by 12 videographers, one for each song) opens with a sprightly picking figure on the electric and a drumbeat that matches the guitar’s rhythmic accents precisely. The verses each close with a lovely, harmonized “not old enough to know” , on the last word of which the vocals begin in a tense minor 7th before leaping up to catch and hang on a high falsetto harmony. It’s one of those effortless little moments of dissonance that provide the tension and release in Carbone’s songs, rather than the usual gradual emotional crescendo thing, which is okay too, only significantly more expected. Also notice the way the lovely spiraling violin figure that leads us into the instrumental verse is cast into bold by the drums brief disappearance, and the way the drums are called back by a handclap (the only one in the entire song). The most unexpected moment of unease comes during the very last descending “know” , where instead of resolving to the root, Carbone’s vocal melody rolls down through perfect consonance before landing on the flat two, a half step up from the one of the final chord. It’s probably the most dissonant note you can sing over a minor chord, and it has an intensely disquieting effect as the last note of the whole song, especially the way Carbone coats it with pretty vibrato, as if it’s the most beautiful note in the world. Yet this is actually the very thing that sells it on the recording: it doesn’t sound like it’s an ugly note to him. It sounds like the note that he wanted the song to end on. On the album (which drops on March 20th and which I haven’t heard in its entirety), each song is strung into the next, so perhaps this final tension is a way of moving into the next song.
B-side “Thin Branches Against a Window,” after a brief organ intro, again matches the rhythmic emphases of the guitar to the drum part, giving the song a lilting, dancy feel that unifies it with “In the Woods” somewhat, though this song is much more of an exercise in constant motion. Before the first verse even starts, it careens off into a very brief sort of Deerhoof interlude, which pockmarks the song periodically, in which the tempo abruptly and completely changes and the drums play a couple of quick, skittering fills. The song rarely stays in any one meter for more than a few bars, sticking mostly, but not entirely, to 4/4 during the verses and otherwise jumping around like a madman, a feeling that is countered only by the calm and stately violin parts. After the one moment where everything coheres into what sounds as if it’s going to be an actual chorus (repeating melody and lyric, 4/4 time, descending harmony), the meter changes and the violin and guitar spin out of control, everything clashing and then somehow resolving into what sounds like a loop from a Schubert record, which finally plays itself out into three acoustic guitar arpeggios and…the sound of a bird chirping? It’s an unbelievable amount of stuff crammed into less than three minutes, and when faced with it it’s easy to overlook the loveliness of the chiming guitars and glockenspiels that underscore the verses.
I’ve mentioned before how music that maintains its mystery is often far more effective, and Carbone does exactly that here, giving us lyrics oblique enough to mean a great many things and music that skates through so many moods and meters and feels that it’s hard to say just what exactly makes it feel coherent, though certainly something does. Perhaps it’s the common sounds of each member’s voice (they all sing, excluding Beck, the drummer), or the distinctly personal style each has on his or her instrument. Perhaps it’s that all Horse’s Mouth songs feel odd in precisely the same way, the product of Carbone’s unique and unified vision, impossible to pin down completely but evocative and pleasurably strange, like a fairytale landscape (not one of the neutered ones where everyone is nice and boring, but the Hans Christian Andersen kind, where little girls get their feet cut off with axes).
In The Woods
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem074/01 In The Woods.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem074/02 Thin Branches.mp3