Thursday, December 9, 2010

Thursday's Track: Two by Rollerball

In this new semi-regular series, I write about tracks that particularly move and impress me. Take a listen and join the conversation!

Portland, Oregon's Rollerball is one of the great and sadly neglected bands of recent years. This eclectic, unpredictable outfit doesn't get anywhere near the acclaim they deserve for their utterly unique sound, which blends avant-pop, free jazz, noisy electronics, prog rock, reggae and ethnic musics, even dashes of techno, into a surprisingly cohesive sound. They've released 13 albums since 1997 and have amassed quite an impressive, varied discography. Despite ranging all over the place from album to album and even song to song, they somehow always sound like Rollerball, no mean trick when one track might be a noisy free jazz blowout, the next a downtempo trip-hop ballad, the next a scratchy piece of improvised psych/folk. It's hard to sum up a band this diverse in one track, so I haven't even tried, instead picking two tracks that, while still not really encompassing the full breadth of this great band's oeuvre, do suggest their ability to shapeshift at will.

"Starling," off the 2003 album Real Hair, is one of the band's poppiest and most accessible songs, from one of their poppiest albums. It's a gorgeous piece of late-night pop, with dubby drums (there's an equally great remix of the song on 2004's Behind the Barber that amps up the dub elements) and a simple but sensuous female vocal that soars above the ska horns and tinkling piano. It's lush and otherworldly, like all of Rollerball's best avant-pop pieces, evocative of Julee Cruise's music for David Lynch but really existing in its own peculiar world. Rollerball's pop tendencies are laced with darkness and mystery; songs like this seem meant to be sung by witches, late at night, preferably in cemeteries, where this haunting music can drift out into the moonlight.

A somewhat different side of Rollerball is evident on "Osceola," from 2000's Bathing Music. The track opens with a scratchy violin accompanied by martial drums, slowly building momentum in a manner reminiscent of Rollerball's contemporaries in turn-of-the-millennium post-rock. But rather than mining simple loud/soft dynamics and building towards an expected explosion, Rollerball adds in jazzy horns to disrupt the solemn march, then transitions into a delicate ballad. The song is constructed modularly, though each section flows gracefully into the next so that the stylistic shifts seem natural rather than abrupt. Free jazz blowing builds out of the song form and then flows back into it, finally leading to the controlled cacophony of the climax.

These two songs are a fitting but incomplete introduction to Rollerball, one that omits the glitchy techno/blues of "Burning Light," the epic jazz grandeur of "Slits Arandas" (both from 2004's Behind the Barber), the supernatural incantations of Trail of the Butter Yeti, and the crotchety, fractured folk of Catholic Paws/Catholic Pause. This is a band well worth exploring in depth, and I hope this all-too-brief introduction will open a few more ears to Rollerball's singular sound.

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