Hardly secret anymore, the New-York-via-Texas trio of drummer Josh Garza and brothers Benjamin (keyboards) and Brandon (guitar) Curtis gained a locustworthy buzz with their major-label debut, Now Here Is Nowhere, a provocative mish-mash of ’70s prog rock and ’90s indie pop. The group’s affection for outdated, let’s-show-‘em-what-we-got pomposity is a real attention-grabber in an age of intentionally slack garage-rock. The underground accepts art for art’s sake, but art for rock’s sake is unheard of. By adding college-rock plainness to the vocals, Secret Machines take a potentially pretentious sound and make it palatable and even fun, regardless of potential Pink Floyd comparisons.
Before the fun stuff came the excruciating bore that is September 000. The self-produced six-song EP is awash in art-rock’s overuse of “space,” both in the “hey, we’re traveling in space” and the “hey, we got a lot of time to kill” senses of the word. “Marconi’s Radio,” the opener, starts with an ultra-sparse (hell, it’s virtually noteless) five-minute intro that incorporates nothing but space, a wander sure to make listeners think about better ways to spend their time. The encouragingly titled “It’s a Bad Wind That Don’t Blow Somebody Some Good” takes three minutes before anything goes down. Neither song is worth the wait. Both brothers handle vocals (identically, by the way) and there are no liner notes to help ascertain who sings what, but at least one of them has a Roger Waters jones. The tick-tock atmospherics of the music certainly deserves the Pink Floyd tag, but it’s the tensely whispered voices that truly call flying pigs to mind. There are worse things to be accused of than having the chops to replicate the godhead of art-rock excess — Pink Floyd are, after all, a tremendously difficult band to pin down — but September 000 still amounts to very little.
With a big production budget and an even bigger drum sound, Now Here Is Nowhere gets it right. Co- producing with Jeff Bleckinsopp, the band doesn’t entirely drop the meandering Floyd fixation — “Pharaoh’s Daughter” and “You Are Chains” verify that —but there’s more substance to the bluster. The nine-minute opener, “First Wave Intact,” uses a syncopated bass/drum attack and vocals with actual presence to warrant its length. With extra psychedelic touches, “Sad and Lonely” coos, swaggers, rumbles and breaks down doors, all in one swoop. Both “Nowhere Again” and “The Road Leads Where It’s Led” are powerful drum-infused rockers. In fact, Garza’s assault on the skins, much tighter that any Bonham comparisons could possibly describe, gives the album much of its strength and character. The rest can be attributed to creative, post-modern lyrics. And did I mention the drums? Those drums, man, those drums! As the lyric in “Nowhere Again” goes, “Right on the kick drum / Turning the sound up.”