• Moviola
  • Frantic (Anyway) 1995  (Spirit of Orr) 1995 
  • The Year You Were Born (Anyway) 1996 
  • Glen Echo Autoharp (Spirit of Orr) 1998 
  • The Durable Dream (Spirit of Orr) 1999 
  • Rumors of the Faithful (Spirit of Orr) 2001 
  • East of Eager (Anyway) 2004 
  • Dead Knowledge (Catbird) 2007 
  • Scrape and Cuss [LP/digital] (No Heroics) 2020 
  • Broken Rainbows (Anyway) 2021 

The seemingly infinite musical variety afforded by rock’s elementary structure has found a generous host in this band from Columbus, Ohio, which has been releasing stylistically inconsistent records on and off since the 1993. Attempts to categorize Moviola, in aggregate or even on an album by album basis, is impossibly slippery: their diversity has summoned up comparisons from NRBQ to Teenage Fanclub, Guided by Voices to Neil Young. Under an awning roughly defined by the Midwest lo-fi aesthetic, what repeatedly jumps out is the audible commitment to staying casual, trying things out and making them work  in whatever framework a song summons. Moviola is never silly, as some of their peers have been, but their seriousness is never ponderous or off-puttingly weird. If that suggests that they hew to a safe lane, they don’t; they appear to have a gyroscopic ability to keep their balance even while leaning way over. Fans of Elephant 6 and Pavement will find lots to like in the band’s extensive catalogue of unpretentious genre-defying guitar rock.

Moviola was formed at Ohio State University by singer-guitarist Jerry Dannemiller, bassist-singer Ted Hattemer, drummer Greg Bonnell and multi-instrumentalists Jake Housh and Scotty Tabachnick, some of whom have connections to other local outfits, including Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments and Bassholes.

While it occasionally sounds as if Moviola is just farting around on The Year You Were Born (e.g., the guitar noodles on “Be There Anyway,” the tinkly piano on “No Heroics,” the frenzied fuzz guitar of “Catastrophe”), the songs have the melodic strength to shine through. Most of the time, though, the music here glows with unpretentious offhand charm, like a latter-day Basement Tapes: slow tempos, seesaws of acoustic and electric guitars, occasionally prominent bass, barely any drumming and artlessly harmonized vocals. In other hands, that would be a recipe for mediocrity, but Moviola has the special sauce to make memories. As proof, “Xtian” is a gorgeous closer that could benefit from higher-fi production — but doesn’t actually need it. Despite the disconcerting slide whistle at the end, the nearly falsetto chugging chagrin of “What’s the Point” is another clear standout, as is the ominous,  enveloping mesh and spoken word narration of “She Took the Bus” — two songs that could not be less alike.

Glen Echo Autoharp turns up the ramshackle electricity enough to make a different, less engaging impression. It  feels both more effortful and less considered, more ambitious and less accomplished. The songs are still sturdy and melodically astute, but distorted voices and busier instrumentation obscure them a bit. The band’s lyrics — easily followed thanks to their neat (if unpunctuated and typo-riddled) presentation in the booklet — eschew verse/chorus routine for prose-like passages that convey brief, impressionistic, sometimes invasive snapshots of emotions and interactions. The lyrics of the swirling, echoey “Better Off #2,” in full as printed: “so i’ll wait and smoke in question these people without direction and wondering i’m better off then them so i find my lighter and set their porch on fire deciding there’s no better off at all  I leave without hesitation wondering why we came and how to get out”.

With Bonnell on a one-album hiatus, the four-man lineup pulled it all together with exemplary élan on The Durable Dream, a professionally played, produced and packaged collection that starts off by exploring the measured tempos of rustic country-inflected sounds. Although there are guests credited, none are identified as drummers; lead vocals, however, are attributed specifically to the four bandmembers. (Housh and Tabachnick are the main singers; Dannemiller and Hattemer each have one turn at the main microphone.) Eventually, the album departs from the Americana vibe: after  the catchy and concise “Accosted,” “1/4 Tank” coasts along on an intriguingly dense, nearly ’60s psychedelic, guitar drone, “Monument” mines a languorous rock groove with gangly background vocals and the verses of “Better Luck Next Time” (which makes room for both horns and fuzz guitar!) find a tropical breeze to ride and “Auburn Green” sounds like Golden Smog.

Strong songs realized as stronger tracks, Rumors of the Faithful (with Bonnell not only sparingly back behind the drum kit, but responsible for the cover art) follows a more winding path. Starting with the pedal steel and pristine, carefully arranged electric guitar pop of “Covers and Pages,” Moviola borrows the “Down on the Corner” bounce for their title track, adds a light Latin touch to “Exit Pearl” and finds a way to update the sound of old-timey music in “Misdirected Brother.” Meanwhile, the band’s songwriting has expanded to include storytelling (the stately “John Butler Train,” driven by a single snare and featuring a lovely accordion part by Mark Wyatt, is very nearly a ballad). Sung (doubletracked) with gentle intimacy, strummed on acoustic guitar and punctuated by trumpet, “October Leaves” sort of recalls the Beach Boys’ Holland.

Pulling their exploratory instincts in, Moviola filled the first half of East of Eager with straight-up country rock, a milder — largely acoustic — variant on the Burritos’ big-city twang: pleasant enough, but low-impact and rather ordinary in both sound and content (with the exception of an oblique history-minded number named for Chicago White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio). The back nine is a lot more entertaining: the stripped-down “About You” is a lovely detour into harmony-rich folk, the gently rocking “Ashes Pop” cracks the mold with a light dusting of Memphis soul and the finale, “East of Eager,” could almost be a They May Be Giants number.

Dead Knowledge is a completely different undertaking, a sonically adventurous stylistic meander that finds good use for mariachi horns, pedal steel and a string quartet in an album that fields an uncanny simulation of the Band (“Rudy” and, to a lesser extent, “Knotty Pine” and “Your Major”) and elsewhere puts me in mind of a Midwest Anglo Los Lobos. Moviola came to this project with loads of ideas exploding in different directions and has the chops and studio suss to realize them. “Don’t I Know” and “Tears in a Jar” and the bluegrass-colored “Humility” all take cues from Appalachian old timey music, while “Hand to Mouth” is forceful electric guitar rock and “Truth and Devotion” is another dip into gospel-edged Memphis soul. The brief instrumental (energetic rock plus a string quartet) “Leitmotif” Perhaps in a tribute to their lo-fi roots, a lot of the electric guitar solos go off the rails, as if played by a rank amateur (or someone intentionally pretending to be one).

Moviola didn’t release anything for well more than a decade after that. When they did, it was on a different footing, one which harkens back to the band’s beginnings, only with a lot more skill and confidence. On the modest, lovely and direct Scrape and Cuss, released online and as limited-edition vinyl, the low-wattage rock pushes melodies and lyrics to the fore with straightforward arrangements that serve them rather than call attention to themselves. Ditto for the structure of the songs. (The guitar solos are still, in spots, decidedly cruddy, which is either a poor aesthetic decision or undue tolerance for a bandmember’s shortcomings.) A vintage Dylan influence, which has surfaced before, pops up in the Leslied organ sound and inflected vocals of several numbers as well as the lyrics of “Caught in the Rain,” a romantic reminiscence whose imagery summons up the first verse of “Chimes of Freedom.” The easygoing vibe of Scrape and Cuss is seriously infectious.

[Ira Robbins]