Into the Trees
[Absolutely Kosher; 2008]
Sybris’ self-titled debut encompassed the whisper-to-a-scream dynamics of grunge, the scorched yet melodic chug of pop-metal, the cosmically inclined grandeur of 1990s shoegaze, and the hazy romantic recrimination of pre-millennial alternative music in general. Their second album, Into the Trees, suggests that they’ve no intention of changing course. They seem to exist in a bubble, suspended in the moment between Nirvana and electronica; the effect is sharpened because this band (so evocative of the thin yet distinct seam between indie and mainstream that prevailed until widespread consumer internet blurred it) seems so ambivalent about the 90s music of their native Chicago– no free-jazzy squalls, post-rocky metrical shenanigans, or improv aesthetics contaminate their loping indie rock. This isolation makes them seem benignly reactionary– at a time when a new genre is minted every day, Sybris remain charmingly retrograde.
Into the Trees begins with a bit of a red herring that exemplifies by contrast how staunchly monolithic the album proper is, a refreshing approach in an era of rampant dilettantism. “”The Beach…(Intro)”, just shy of a minute, finds Angela Mullenhour’s ten-story voice reduced to a long-distance croak, as a fatigued beat and an indifferently recorded guitar jangle shrug out a melody. You might wonder if Sybris have become jaded and feel alarmed because jadedness would be anathema to their music. But these doubts are dispelled when the shaggy beat and cooing guitar leads of “Oh Man!” plow in, a track that suggests Yeah Yeah Yeahs at their most Show Your Bones-y accessible. It’s also one of the catchiest, sweetest-sounding songs to ever feature lyrics like, “Where’d you get those drugs, from a pusher?/ Where’d you get that pussy, from a hooker?” Lines like these– not to mention the tautological “hot metal’s hot when you touch it”– seem apt for a band that revels in the thrillingly obvious.
Sometimes, drummer Eric Mahle unobtrusively backlights Phil Naumann’s sparkling guitar. At others– e.g. “Safety City” and “Something About a Darkhorse or Whatever”– he’s much more cunning, picking out patterns that kind of metastasize outward, and you realize that each of these songs had the potential to slant catchy or crafty, pretty much at Mahle’s discretion. A nice balance of both keeps the album moving– catchy ones like “Oh Man!” hit hardest at first, but the craftier ones have longer legs. At its most compelling, Mahle’s cascading interplay with Naumann’s leads recalls the starry spirals of Life Without Buildings’ Will Bradley and Robert Johnston. Still, Mullenhour’s voice, an instrument capable of spanning the range between campfire intimacy and inferno force in the space of a single line, can’t help but hog the spotlight. Throughout the cosmetic variations– “Burnout Babies” has a jagged quality, “Hurt Hawk” is a folky drift, “St. Veronica” swings a bit– the moments that stick with you most are the steamrolling upsweeps, where the guitar figures corkscrew down the neck, drum rolls pushing them along, as Mullenhour’s voice opens up into a shuddering howl.