Remember 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.
Cover 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.