In 2007, To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie began their first album on Kranky with a shriek of piercing noise. The album that followed was layered with dirty rhythms and walls of sound that were as dense and deformed as they were pretty. On Marlone, Mark McGee and Jehna Wilhelm have opened up their sound and, as a result, crafted a spacious and sprawling album far more dynamic and layered than their debut.
“You’ve Gone Too Far” might as well be the mantra Mark and Jenha worked from while recording Marlone. The Patron wasn’t exactly an extravagant album, however the latest from this Minneapolis based duo is far more concerned with restraint and economy than its predecessor was. The aforementioned opening song builds and develops slowly, putting numerous textures and Jenha’s lovely vocals to good use. Wilhelm’s voice is, in fact, the single most important instrument on the album and also one of the most diverse. Without her, certain songs would fall apart or simply dissolve before they could evolve. On the other hand, her sometimes haunting melodies wouldn’t sound nearly as impressive as they do if it weren’t for Mark’s churning blend of guitar, bass, violin, and drums. Blasts of noise aren’t quite as important this time around as continuity and thick-as-a-brick atmospheres are, but waves of feedback, drone, and distortion still play a significant role on nearly every song. If nothing else, Marlone is a further refinement of the music we heard on The Patron, but there are places where To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie have altered their sound more radically and produced music far richer than anything from their past. Those moments are Marlone’s defining ones. While some of the album proceeds at the same patient pace as past efforts, the band frequently ventures off into new territory with exotic and more exciting results.
“The Needle” is the first sign that TKAPB are ready to travel beyond their comfort zone. After “You’ve Gone Too Far” fades away, a pulsing keyboard melody and a thumping drum set emerge from the silence like a predator hunting down frightened prey. But this pace doesn’t last long and the song quickly segues into a drift of low-end melody and Jenha’s airy voice. Splashes of percussion and metallic noise swirl about her like a threatening presence, but they only break free and scream toward the end of the song. Even then, the name of the game is impressionism: Mark and Jenha’s music breathes and hisses more than it punches or attacks. The upbeat, nearly dancey rhythm promised at the beginning of “The Needle” doesn’t show up again until six songs later, when “In Peoples’ Homes” kicks the album into serious overdrive. In the interim songs develop throbbing rhythms, but they all move in unison like a blob. Even where sharp rhythms are distinctly heard, McGee’s production overtakes them with blends of melody, string textures, organic noise, and big doomy blasts of bass drums and cymbals. At times this combo manifests a romantic tone, but a kind of barren dread can be felt throughout the record, too. It’s as if Mark and Jenha were performing from the other side of the apocalypse.
Still, whispers of hope and even happiness are implied on the album, as in the conclusion to “I Will Hang My Cape in Your Closet.” For nearly three minutes TKAPB prepare to take off and soar into the heavens, readying themselves to escape the dark and dimly lit world in which they have always lived. Of course, this preparation is summarily erased by an eerie transition and a giant, almost mechanical blast of distortion and martial rhythm. Because an uncanny mood dominates much of the record, a sense of monotony marks parts of the record. It takes four whole songs and part of a fifth for McGee and Wilhelm to break out of their mold and produce something with a little pep to it. This could be read as a mark of dedication and consistency, but Mark and Jenha blend their influences so well that I think more variety could’ve enhanced the album.
Happily, “In Peoples’ Homes” explodes near the end of the album and delivers a much needed surge of strong melody and succinct songwriting. Where previous songs either relied upon Jenha alone for melodic content or shared melodic duties among various instruments at various times, “In Peoples’ Homes” puts all the cards on the table at once. It is the closest the band has come to writing a pop song and its rather upbeat performance is a show stealer. The first time through, it was the most shocking thing on the album. Its yearning violin line and Jenha’s playful vocals contrast sharply the sludge and droney mass that makes up the rest of the album. Upon repeat listens it isn’t quite so shocking; its place on the record makes good sense and marks one of the album’s highest peaks. And though its violins, acoustic drums, and clean guitar lines make for a more open sound, Marlone still shows off a dense attitude. One of the band’s defining attributes is its willingness to move at a glacial pace; “Turritopsis” and “Summertime” are perfect examples of this. Big, chunky strokes of sound define both songs, which mix McGee’s love for noise with major chords and an altogether bright production. Without a doubt, this is a far less destructive record than The Patron. It’s also more diverse and, for that reason, a more pleasing record.
By shedding some of the darkness surrounding them, TKAPB have crafted an album with as much light to it as darkness. This lends Marlone a romantic tone, maybe even a tragic one. In any case, the freedom realized in incorporating further pop elements into their sound is significant. It both contrasts their typically intense and cinematic vision and provides it with some much welcomed depth. Without it, Marlone wouldn’t be the big step forward that it is.
It is worth noting that the copy of Marlone I received has some regretably blurry text settled among the already dark artwork. I understand that black and grey make an attractive couple, but reading the song titles and the contributor’s names in the liner notes was far more difficult than it should be. This is maybe a minor complaint, but it would be nice if I didn’t have to strain my eyes to figure out who engineered the album and provided the artwork!