Penance Soiree (2004)
The Icarus Line
Impression published on Thursday, 2010-03-25 | Album | 3 stars
If Wikipedia is to be believed, Aaron North, who was born in 1979 and is best known for his stint as Trent Reznor's guitar player in the mid-naughts, started The Icarus Line in 1998. He stuck with his post-high school band for about seven years, through a number of line-up changes and managed to help squeeze out two full-length releases, reportedly mastering/mixing the bulk of 2004's Penance Soiree in his private facilities and on his own dime. The record took over a year to record and produce and, when it was finally released, it came out with the wrong art, was short a track or two and became an instant critical darling (i.e. got the proverbial kiss of death from nearly every professional who heard it).
Given these facts, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine that this record broke this band. The Icarus Line still exists, of course, but North is gonzo as of 2005 and, given what I've read and heard, it's a totally different trip without his leadership.
This is (obviously) all a lot of conjecture (and creativity) on my part, but I've recorded it here as a record of the assumptions with which I approached this collection of songs. Or, at least, I've set it down as a record of the imagined narrative that got me interested in this record in the first place. "Here", I thought to myself, "is a record that was too much for this promising indie band to handle: recording it took everything they had and the aftermath of its release left North with enough of a distaste for the whole experience that when TR called him back for a second audition, he was happy to hang up his baby in order to move on to bigger things."
Which, now that I've spent some time with Penance Soiree and now that everyone is familiar with the quiet, desultory unraveling and eventual whimpering dissolution of Nine Inch Nails, is a narrative that has an added layer. To wit: Aaron North dragged one of the great, definitively-obscure-and-therefore-legit roots rock records across the finish line and then walked away, effectively getting out while his stock was as high as it could have reasonably gotten, given the scant materials he started with. This fact lends color and depth to both stories.
And, because I know you're wondering, it really is no exaggeration to call Penance Soiree one of the great roots rock records. On their sophomore full-length, The Icarus Line has all the swagger and bravura of Jet but none of the nerdy contrivance and cloying top 40 artifice; they've got all of the scrappiness and bad attitude of the grungier roots rock outfits such as The Vines or The Strokes but none of the toothy Tiger Beat smiles or annoying, prima donna ham-fisting; and, above all, this album possesses a sleazy melancholy and an apathetic leer that the Rolling Stones only even begin to approach once or twice in their corpus.
I think, in light of the weeks I've spent with it, what finally separates this album (other than the narrative I've pieced together for it) from the herd, is its laziness. In a time when rock records with a "roots" influence were either stylishly under-produced or tiresomely over-produced (think White Stripes on one end and The Mars Volta on the other), there's a nice balance on this record between unintentionally missed notes/hits and "layers" of sound.
Additionally, The Icarus Line brings a compositional style that doesn't feel nearly as forced or self-conscious as other, similar acts: this fits well with the performances themselves, which generally come across as carefree, occasionally offering an auto-didact's brand of virtuoso performance (e.g. guitar feedback that sounds "just right" or a drum hook that picks up the rhythm of a melody for a few emphatic bars).
In the final estimation, I think this record is equally parts attractive and repulsive, lazily trying on and then rapidly casting off recognizable generic conceits for frantic, sprawling breakdowns overlaid with singer Joe Cardamone's ecstatic, tastefully distortion-pedaled howl. There is, of course, a lot here for anyone interested in what a kick-in-the-ass to the stale roots rock of the early naughts sounds like, but this is a challenging record, and fond memories of downloading "Are You Gonna be My Girl" and "Last Night" won't get you through it: these guys are, if nothing else, evasive, combative and coolly inaccessible.