Smile Politely

Album Review: Common Loon’s The Long Dream of Birds

If you live in this pint-sized Midwestern city long enough and go to your fair share of local concerts, you will eventually rub elbows with every local musician who has ever plugged into an amp or pounded a floor tom in our twin towns. It’s nearly impossible not to as too many of those shows will be so poorly attended you’ll find yourself standing in the audience watching a band with only the other bands on the bill (and their significant others) to keep you company.

It was at one of those poorly attended shows in 2008 that I met Common Loon’s two members, Robert Hirschfeld (guitars, vocals) and Matt Campbell (drums, vocals). Turns out, Matt, Robert, and I have a mutual love for watching Big Ten sports and pretending to be decent at tennis. We are friends; I’m also friends with the band’s manager and everyone who works at their record label, Champaign-Urbana’s own Parasol Records. See, that’s how it works in these pint-sized Midwestern communities; it’s hard to write a bad word about anyone if you’re friends with everyone. And if that makes me a slimy salesman, then boy do I have a bridge I’d like to sell you …

Robert and Matt have been working on many of the songs that appear on their debut long player, The Long Dream of Birds, for more than three years. The fact that they sound precisely polished is no accident. Together, with some assistance from producer Adam Schmitt, they micro-managed these 11 tunes to the point of mental exhaustion. In some cases, that could be a terrible thing, leaving the songs sounding propped up only by knob-twisting trickery. In Common Loon’s case, however, the truth is they spent an unwieldy amount of time coloring inside the lines of a superb collection of songs. Stripped naked, these songs would still hold obvious appeal.

If you’ve seen them live and, like me, were impressed by the songwriting but left wanting something more … it’s all right here on record. This does not sound like an album recorded by a duo. For starters, it sounds robust and well-rounded. Birds is at turns stout and lush, muscular yet agile, often pretty, which is where the shoegazer comparison is apt. Like My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, Common Loon captures the swirling noise and restless abandon of rock and roll but cages it in subtle melodies and relatively reserved, layered vocals. That big-yet-small essence is one often sought by rookie bands, but rarely achieved on a debut record. And that is why townies will be talking about The Long Dream of Birds for a really long time.

On record, Common Loon has it. The way The Blackouts and the Beauty Shop had it. The way Hum and Braid and the Poster Children had it. The way Jay Bennett and Adam Schmitt had it. Swagger. Smarts. Style. Songwriting. The whole shebang. What a rock band needs to make it.

Let’s start not at the beginning of Birds, but instead in “Mexico,” the record’s seventh entry. A guitar lick—clean, elusive, bouncy—is backed by subtle shaker and tumbling toms. “I’m on the run I guess / I’ll never get away from you,” Robert sings. A distorted echo of the guitar lick unravels itself over the top as the vocals dissolve into the group’s trademark harmonies, layered and drippy-slow like a lava lamp.

I hear the 1990s in these songs: strains of Yo La Tengo and Acetone and Spiritualized and, yes, locals like Hum and C-Clamp. Considering Matt and Robert have cherry-picked the best parts of that musical decade, consider it a compliment. Nothing sounds dated; in fact, given the ungodly number of current bands looking to the 1970s and ’80s for inspiration, it’s a refreshing turn of events to come across a group mining the more recent past—the band members’ actual musical upbringing.

“Dinosaur vs. Early Man” is the single, I suppose. Matt’s synths wrap an electric blanket around his subdued vocals, while Robert’s plaintive guitar and the shuffle of a sleigh bell add background drizzle. The chorus, one long “oooooooooooh / nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah” shared between singers, is what people think of when mentioning Common Loon’s knack for dreamy vocals drenched in West Coast psychedelia. It’s rather pleasant to hear such a vocal heritage yanked from its original context. The Beach Boys, this ain’t—but I get why some make that connection.

“Greenland” mixes a bit of Sigur Ros into the equation. It’s a serene, ethereal, evolving song best shown in landscape. This is where you really begin to get just how talented these guys are as arrangers. There are so many moving parts in this fluid song, each with its own distinct melodic element, that in lesser hands the cut would collapse under the weight of its parts. In the care of Robert and Matt, “Greenland” is a statement that inspires awe. If it doesn’t tickle your Absinthe Blind funnybone, cut that arm off—you won’t be needing it any longer.

“Happy Ending” dips its toe in Buddy Holly territory as the simple, repetitive chords are deliberately hammered while electronic noise flutters about like a cluster of humming insects. Holly never sang anything like this: “a happy ending leaves this culture to die / forward progress leaves the audience behind.” That dour reading wouldn’t fly in the Fifties. But Holly and his ilk would probably dig the minute-long “Ho-hum Apocalypse,” despite the ominous diction in its title. A cutesy Casio intro breeds an abrupt about face: a Nirvana-esque mess of bashing, stomping, straightforward rock and roll—possibly the hardest Matt and Robert have ever rocked—topped by Matt’s contrasting, composed vocal melody. The kicker is the regressive chorus, a catchy, catch-your-breath juncture that gives way to Robert’s bubble-gum guitar hook—sure to bury itself in your skull. The fleeting tune is about as close to a perfect pop song as you’re going to get. It’s sure to become a favorite of the band’s live set—as soon as the duo figures out a way to pull it off live.

And there’s the rub for me. What Common Loon brings on record should be even more boisterous and beautiful on stage. But they haven’t quite got that part perfected yet, which just goes to show you they are a rookie band after all. So get in on the ground floor and see how high this elevator goes. The other cool thing about living in a pint-sized Midwestern city is that you can watch this story unfold in increments of three and five dollars. Your next opportunity comes this Friday, April 9, at the Cowboy Monkey. It’s the group’s record-release show and they’ll be playing with fellow Parasol label mates New Ruins—no shabby act, that one—and, in a last minute addition, locals Santah. The cover is five bucks. Be sure to wave goodbye as the boys head out of town on a lengthy tour to the East and West coasts.

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