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Ethan Andrews -The Hoxca
by Chris Gage


What's in the water of northern Brooklyn? With alacrity, bands have been springing forth from that ZIP and winning headlines worthy of bands with entire albums, not just the EPs they got under their belts. It's common knowledge that sometime around 1949 and 1950 there was a massive underground oil spill in Greenpoint. That's probably not it though. But may account for the bitter taste currently in my mouth when I sing the Williamsburg shuffle.

While the recycled Stooges and modern-day Television that has been burbling to the surface lately have their places in the '90s, the bands shopping that tune don't tread new water. They probably don't intend to, but a dose of irony in sweatbands is overkill, not progress. However, there are nuggets of wonder to be found in any scene, and "the hoxca," (www.romanceofvagues.com) the recent release by multi-instrumental Brooklynite Ethan Andrews, moves things forward. Don't get me wrong, this ain't Brian Eno reinventing little Davey Jones, but it is a far sight more daring than what Rolling Stone claims is hip, happening, and hot.

The album opens with, oddly enough, "the hoxca," a churning stew of instruments anchored by a grooved drum beat and filled with an organ and eerie moan that pulses throughout the first half. I'm not sure I can name a lot of what's being used to populate this music, but Tom Waits, God love his soul, always reminds me of the instruments he uses, while Andrews discards their quirkiness and rewards the listener with an orchestration not centered on any one device. "The hoxca" is a sample and meringue of an instrumental: it froths and pulses and moans and moves to its conclusion with handclaps and cheering crowds. It sets the stage perfectly for what's to come in the rest of the album by introducing us to the sonicness of the many coexisting mechanisms Andrews uses and his orderly disregard of consistency.

From here the album moves into a barroom piano shuffle called "the twilight sleep" that bounces as much as it bites. It's a call-to-arms song that bellows "can you feel your luck coming back like a fucking stranger?" and contains in-and-out lyrics like "something I said is making me think I got something to say" and then drives on and on like a free-range roadtrip to its inevitable wind-down conclusion. What's interesting here is that "the twilight shuffle" contains a channeled anger (or perhaps braggadocio) coated in self-criticism. The swing of it, though, keeps it agitated, not the lyrics.

The majority of the album contains similarly impressive piano work as "the twilight sleep." And everywhere the playing is fluid and moves across genres midsong like a gull slipping on the aforementioned oil. When artists attempt styles, the fabrication shows through (as in this review). (Think of the Rolling Stones disco moments.) Andrews appears wary of this, and the songs contain the hint of a period-just enough before dancing back into the present.

Andrews here plays all the instruments, as well as handling the lyrics and singing. It's impressive when you think of the restraint one must exhibit to do this. The tendency would be to 1) wank away on whichever instrument you were best at or 2) to get caught up in the deafening roar of your own wonderfulness. But with a mellow organ pumping out a lullaby or a tap-tap on the cymbal, Andrews demonstrates that he is beholden to the song not his prowess-considerable though it may be. (The little oooh ahhs peppering "the twilight sleep" tug at me gut every time.)

The highlights of this disc to my ears would be "milk truck" where Andrews' voice is sweet and endearing as it rides over a mellow '70s-Dylan groove and he stands on a chair to reach the high notes to sing "shaking my head when I coulda been shaking anything [pause] from the station back to the town." It's a good demonstration of Andrews' rawness: his hands move across the guitar's neck; the natural reverb of the room he recorded in; the strain of his voice. The other highlight, "mayapple," is the song Radiohead should have written. It crescendos to the beat of a bass drum and an orchestral swarm of violins and a completely unironic set of la la las. It's a darn impressive feat that Andrews managed to mesh the organic and the synthetic into such a pleasurable instrumentation.

And that's the key to a lot of this album. He doesn't seem to believe in any one thing; there appear to be few limitations to building a song. If the song wants to be sung in half in French, so be it. If it wants Casio keyboards, so be it. If it wants to go clink, clank, clunk, okay to that too. Sometimes songs want to be things you don't agree with, and Andrews has the foresight to let them. Only once does this organic style not pan out: "here comes the whip," with its repetitive guitar rocking is a dead spot, perhaps because he didn't push it hard enough. Don't want to make excuses, but maybe it's all the song wanted. It lacks the natural complexity of the rest of the album and though the lyrics shine ("Kept my fingers in the finest things / never did get those") it doesn't aspire (or inspire) in the same way.

When I read out about the Greenpoint oil spill, it was compared to the Exxon Valdez spill. Obviously, people like context. And record reviews are the same: a series of measurements: "It's as good as this" and "It sounds like that." I'm not interested in a five-star rating system. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when Tom Waits came out with "Swordfish Trombones" (or Faith No More with "Angel Dust") you suddenly had to wonder what to do with the earlier recordings. What "the hoxca" makes me want to know is, what has Ethan Andrews been doing up until this point?






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