There are plenty of reasons why rock has never been as fertile an improvisational canvas for musicians as jazz — chief among them, the hold of the 4/4 beat, the transience of attention spans (on the part of musicians and audience alike) and the fact that most aspiring bands would rather build a beer-can wall than a vertically soaring head. Despite a receding indie-rock orthodoxy, this San Diego quartet manages to successfully navigate the waters of improv with minimal listing toward the shores of pomp or shambling into silly lo-fi wankery.
The excitement of getting into a studio for the first time (or in front of a 4-track, to be more precise) to record Of Thick Tum proved to be such an overwhelming experience that no one in the band remembered to bring a tuner. It’s clear someone had the Pavement songbook, though, since most of the album’s songs follow the shuffle/spazz-out/shuffle map so closely it’s a wonder Trumans Water didn’t end up wandering the outskirts of Stockton, fuzzboxes in hand. The four-song Our Scars Like Badges EP tempers the Boswell-ism a tad, allowing for more visceral interplay between the three credited guitarists (Kirk Branstetter, the bass-doubling Kevin Branstetter and occasional singer Glen Galloway), particularly on the lengthy — for this band, that means over two minutes — “Sad Sailor Story.”
Spasm Smash XXXOXOX Ox and Ass has some residual Malkmus-mania — most evident in the album’s artwork and in blatant stylistic cops like “Mindstab Forklift” and “Athete Who Is Suck” — but aggression supplants irony for long patches of instrumental scree. Not to imply that the band doesn’t have a formalized (and sometimes narrowcast) notion of what passes for cultural exchange in indie-land — just check out the opening “Aroma of Gina Arnold” for proof of that — but the Trumans aesthetic is obviously stretching.
Intended to be considered as a series — although not necessarily an identical litter of quadruplets — the improv-based (and mainly instrumental) Godspeed albums that tumbled out around the tail end of 1993 evince a dramatic advancement on the part of the Trumans as both musicians and theoreticians. The albums aren’t “pure” improvisation on the order of Saccharine Trust’s monumental Worldbroken, but at their best, they can approximate the feeling of finding yourself inserted under the glass of a pinball machine during a multi-ball bonus round. Once you get past the grating white noise of “Total X-Stasis” and the just-plain-silly “Soup of Volts,” Godspeed the Vortex reveals itself as the best of the lot. Riddled with intriguingly abrasive guitar figures that apply Eastern modality (“Syrup Is Tangled”) and post-Sharrock prolapse (“True-Star Down”), the album shifts from ambient to demanding with pinpoint precision: pop it into the cassette module of your clock radio and you’ll never oversleep again. Godspeed the Punchline consists of eighteen short blasts of negasonic tumult, kicking off with the adrenalized “Destroy 1998” and wending through pieces both dreamily atmospheric (“Infinity Times Zero”) and violently quaking (“Playboy Stabtone Bloodbath Go”). The unremittingly telescoped timeframes sometimes abort clever ideas just as they’re kicking into gear, but as a sort of avant-skronk Whitman’s sampler, it’s a pretty nifty specimen.
Having reached a sort of Zen-like state with those releases, Trumans Water was able to stomach enough linear thought to allow record-store types to unapologetically file Milktrain to Paydirt under rock. The herky-jerky rhythms of “Unitraction Bath” and “Mnemonic Elf Lock” pack a particularly potent post-Fall punch, but that’s not always enough to offset the self-congratulatory quirkiness that seems so ingrained in the band’s approach.
Glen Galloway left the band midway through the Godspeed series in order to devote himself to performing Christian-themed material — but don’t assume that constitutes a change in his musical ideology. Soul-Junk is just as mercurial, just as stimulating as Trumans Water at its best. The 1950 album, which takes most of its lyrics directly from Bible passages, isn’t an ideal introduction, since the lopsided production situates Galloway’s strangled vocals (reminiscent of Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan) so far in front of the minimal guitar/drums backing (augmented by free-jazz sax honking on a few instrumental interludes) that you’d swear the instrumentalists were playing in a car parked outside the studio.
With slightly more structure and much better recording, 1951 leaves little doubt as to Galloway’s objective in songs like “Spirit of God Descend Upon Us” and “God Does Speak.” His lyrical tone, however, has more in common with old-school gospel than Christian rock as such: there’s plenty of joyful worship and virtually no brimstone. There’s even plenty of sensory stimulation for heathens, as borne out by the squawking “Turn to Joy.” Cohorts Ron Easterbrook and Brian Cantrell take more active roles on 1952, which adds some much-needed conceptual tension. We’re speaking strictly in terms of sound, of course — songs like “Spoiler!” and the instrumental “Pegasus on the Slow Tip” are dotted with blasts of Moog, trumpet and trombone. Thematically, Galloway sticks to songs of praise — getting in some especially effective licks on the funk-tinged “Sweet to My Soul” and “Cold-Coct the Coroner.” Proof that positive thinking needn’t rot your teeth.