Cotton Mather singer Robert Harrison sounds more than a little like John Lennon. He also writes songs that sound like the Beatles. Those two factors are usually enough to write a band off as retro wannabes, but this Austin group has made great music that uses its inspirations merely as a jumping-off point to explore original territory.
The Austin quartet made its debut with Cotton Is King, a flawed but promising effort to find a sound. There’s a strong Squeeze influence at play, with verbose lyrics and too many literary allusions, but some songs work, especially “Payday,” “April’s Fool” and “Lost My Motto,” which showcase Harrison’s melodicism and Whit Williams’ guitar work. The label folded, the rhythm section departed and the two had to begin again.
Harrison and Williams recorded Kontiki with some friends and brought the tapes to producer Brad Jones (Jill Sobule, Steve Earle), who helped them chisel out a record. The swirling opening chords of “Camp Hill Rail Operator” sound as though they are being piped in from Venus; tape splices and sound collages punctuate standouts like “Homefront Cameo,” “Password” and “My Before and After” (“Cracked the code on the Rosetta Stone / Said the word for ‘alone’ is ‘alone'”), Revolver-shaped nuggets so catchy that surgery may be required to extract them from your brain. The Dylanesque rush of “Vegetable Row” collapses into the celestial organ that begins “Aurora Bori Alice,” while “Church of Wilson” is a Pixiefied fuzz-freakout that explodes and melts into the sumptuous layered harmonies of “Lily Dreams On.” The inevitable Beatles comparisons are rendered irrelevant by the quality of the songs and the imaginative recording techniques; Kontiki is an innovative power-pop gem that stands up, and stands out, on its own merits.
Oasis became fans and took Cotton Mather on tour in England and France. Kontiki was reissued by Rainbow Quartz, who then released Hotel Baltimore, a largely inconsequential seven-track stopgap containing a different version of “Lost My Motto,” instrumental fragments and leftovers.
The Big Picture, made again with Jones and mixed by Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips), is an ambitious record that finds the band alternately turning it up and quieting things down. Williams, a genuine power-pop guitar hero, steals the show on “Marathon Man” and “40 Watt Solution,” while the cryptic “Pine Box Builder” (“The note that she left him intended no blame / But he knew his sentence when he read his name”) is solo acoustic and exemplifies Harrison’s unique craft. The band’s reference points are more varied this time around, with “Glory Eyes,” a crunchy slab of GBV-style indie rock, and “Amps of Sugarland,” which could have been an out-take from This Year’s Model. Not as instantly rewarding as Kontiki, but a fine record nonetheless.