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Record Review: An American Chinese’s Utopian Tree

An American ChineseRemember when you used to listen to an album as a whole? Yeah, neither do we. Here, we review An American Chinese‘s Utopian Tree—which the local folk-pop act officially released last Thursday at Kung Fu Necktie—by breaking it down the same way you’ll likely consume it: bite by bite.

An American ChineseCover Art: A smiling, multicultural family of five sits crossed-legged on the floor at a dinner table, consuming an unidentified, rainbow-colored meal. (The back cover features the same image with everything except the rainbows in an inverted color scheme.) Not only is it an apt cover for the debut album by a band that calls itself An American Chinese, but it’s also indicative of the songs in general: Not so much a seamless blending of different musical influences and aesthetics as it is separate musical identities being thrown into the mix and managing to work together while still maintaining their own territory.

Opening Track: As far as first impressions go, An American Chinese isn’t the kind of outgoing band that rushes up to greet you with a firm handshake. What “Safe Tigers” lacks in ferocity, however, it makes up for with gentle atmospherics: the song kicks off with nothing more than a low, soft hum; a ringing, brittle acoustic guitar chord and light kick drum beat soon join the mix, followed by dreamy female vocals. (Hopefully, you’re a fan of slightly distorted, reverb-heavy vocals that are buried in the mix, because this album is full of them.) If anything, the opening track is simply a two-minute intro for the equally short (but significantly more jangly) follow-up, “Japanese Salesman.”

The Standout Single: It’s hard to figure out what, if any, song the band intended to be the album’s money track. Normally (on a debut album, at least), a band will stick that kind of song in the second or third slot to grab a listener’s attention right away. Here, it could be either the third (“No No Like That”) or fifth song (“Indian Punk”). The former is a rollicking track, with a plucky acoustic guitar line and organs accentuated by hand claps and tambourines; the latter is a more uptempo and sonically sparse song with a constant sense of urgency. The problem here is that “No No Like That” (as well as “Jersey Claw” and “Panic Pilgrim, Quick Grab Your Suitcase”) is featured on the band’s previous EP—which wouldn’t really be an issue, if only a) the EP wasn’t more than three years old, and b) the song wasn’t on the EP twice (the second being an unmastered mono version). Surely the members of the band don’t think the best song the new album has to offer is one they released in 2007? That could very well be the case, but we’ll go with “Indian Punk.”

The Deep Cut: Sitting out in No Man’s Land in the 10th spot is “The Distaste Of Dairy Frank,” a tight, tense song that—on an album which often features instruments veering in different directions—finds the acoustic guitar, bass, organ, and vocals all riding the same melody. (Similarly, every instrument nails the off-beat hook that helps drive each verse.) Such musical unity is a rarity on Utopian Tree, which is probably why it’s one of the first songs to plant itself firmly in your head. Like “Indian Punk,” “The Distaste Of Dairy Frank,” proves that An American Chinese achieves the best results when the five members are on the same page and avoid superfluousness.

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Tonight’s Concert Pick: An American Chinese’s record-release show at Kung Fu Necktie

An American ChineseFive months might seem like a long time to wait for a record-release show. After all, according to An American Chinese‘s Twitter, the band received physical copies of its debut album, Utopian Tree, from the presses waaay back in early August. (The entirety of the album was also made available via the band’s Bandcamp page back in September, with the majority of the songs available online as early as last spring.) But, when you’re An American Chinese, you’re used to waiting: Utopian Tree is the first release since the band’s 2007 Panic Pilgrim EP (which features three songs that make a return appearance on the newish full-length). The good news is that Utopian Tree is worth the wait, a fact that will be on full display when the band performs the songs live tonight during its belated record-release show. An American Chinese performs with Steve Goldberg And The Arch Enemies and When I Was 12 at 8 p.m. at Kung Fu Necktie; tickets to the 21+ show are $5.

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Tonight’s Concert Picks: Summer Fiction at Johnny Brenda’s, Birds Of Maya at Kung Fu Necktie, An American Chinese at Danger Danger

Bill Ricchini

Whenever some seriously inclement weather—like, say, a freakish rainstorm—takes over the city, having a lack of worthwhile arts-and-entertainment options later in the evening is usually a good thing. That way, you don’t feel so bad about staying in the entire night, drying out your soaked clothes while drinking hot tea and watching re-runs of Law & Order. Unfortunately, there’s not one, not two, but three can’t miss shows going on tonight, all of which feature amazing local acts. So, Philadelphia: Get ready to get wet—again. At Johnny Brenda’s, Bill Ricchini celebrates the release of Summer Fiction, the debut album by his new indie-pop recording project of the same name (you can listen to the album here); In Grenada, which (re-)released its own stellar debut two months ago, opens (9 p.m., 21+, $10). Mike Polizze has recently been drawing a lot of attention with his latest side project, Purling Hiss. (Last month, he toured with Kurt Vile and The Soft Pack in support of Purling Hiss’ new album, Public Service Announcement.) Tonight at Kung Fu Necktie, however, he’s back with his main band, the loud-as-hell blues-rock trio, Birds Of Maya; Australia’s Taco Leg (yes, the band is really called “Taco Leg”) opens (8 p.m., 21+, $6). Finally, An American Chinese—which John Vettese highlighted last week in the Philly Local Philes (“Metropolitan” off the band’s new Utopian Trees is definitely worth checking out)—performs with Univox and The Naked Hearts at Danger Danger Gallery (8 p.m.)

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Philly Local Philes: An American Chinese’s “Metropolitan”

An American ChineseI guess the cosmic teal multicultural fest on the band’s album cover (pictured) made me think An American Chinese would be a perfect Philly Local Phile this Thanksgiving weekend. Or maybe I’m just glad the full album is finished and available. Philly music heads have watched this adventurous five-piece belt out the tunes on Utopian Tree using their vintage (and easily breakable) gear for nigh on three years now, but the only recorded offering has been the Panic Pilgrim EP. (Good stuff, for sure, but too, too short.) Utopian Tree captures their eclectic oddities in full – Moogs and acoustic guitars on “Jersey Claw,” dance loops and spacey echoes on “Chasing Rabbit,” front porch soul on “Petition to Dear St. Augie.” You can stream the whole record here, or download the album’s pop pinnacle “Metropolitan” below. And mark your calendars now— the belated record release happens Jan. 6 at Kung Fu Necktie.