erasing clouds

The National Splits, Fontana (Recordhead)

reviewed by dave heaton

The National Splits might come out of the diy indie-rock scene, as Mike Downey (Mr. National Splits, a one-man band) has for a while now been spitting out great pop-rock songs lo-fi style with bands like Wolfie, Mathlete and The New Constitution, yet the soul of his music also resides with the grand tradition of somebody picking up a guitar and singing about what he knows. That tradition goes back not just to Woody Guthrie and his ilk--an influence that does seem to be popping up in Downey's songs more often these days--but likely all the way back to the dawn of man, when some cave people picked up a rock or whatever and pounded out their feelings on it.

Fontana is the second National Splits album, and capitalizes on the first album's promise by offering 16 catchy, rocking songs that will get you reaching for the volume dial to turn it up. More than just fun to listen to (though they are that), these songs come off as a genuine projection of one person's life-his thoughts, feelings, stories--and therefore more feel like reading great letters from a friend than listening to music made by a stranger. The songs reflect real life moods and wants: to travel, to party, to disappear. They seem to come out of boredom or restlessness as much as love, like everything in life. And they have a storytelling side that's more common to old folk and blues than indie-rock. Downey captures the essence of the wandering troubador, if not his typical genre, by telling American stories both personal (songs that start with words like "By the time we made it backů") and vaguely historical. In the latter group are "Hills and Fog," an old-style murder tale, and the album-closing "Badger Creek," a song that's cheery in tone but bears the creepy chorus, "We're going down to Badger Creek/we're gonna die because we're weak."

While a few songs do adopt the stylistic touches of old-time folk and country, like harmonica for example, for the most part Downey bridges those traditional styles with rock fueled by loud guitars and anthemic hooks. The result is an album that's more complex than it seems, more diverse and layered than the homemade-sounding creations of a 1-man-band should be. But even when Downey comes off like a slacker throwing together music for the hell of it, you know deep down that he takes his music seriously. He must, to make an album this good.

Plus, Fontana, like his other albums, bears the obvious stamp of a die-hard music fan, someone who loves his favorite songs like you wouldn't believe. Who else would write a song about the tragedy of an ex-girlfriend stealing his favorite albums ("Of all the things you could have stole, you had to take my rock and roll!", he sings), or write lines like these: "you could scream loud sad words you wish you wrote/attempt to sing along blame the dope that you smoke/I do it all the time." For that matter, who but a rock freak could write a party anthem as kick-ass as The National Splits' "Get Loose"? It's a song that will make you move some part of your body, even if you're dead. Fontana is the work of an indie-rock kid who loves the Stones, loves GBV, loves countless other bands of all stripes, and is now making music legions of other music lovers might hold as dear.

For more info, visit Recordhead.

Issue 13, April 2003 | next article

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