From the cover of the album, you can pretty much get a good idea of what you’re about to hear within. A Soviet propaganda font and the image of a professor-like figure addressing empty seats offer a glimpse into the message, while the name of the artist and the album’s title offer insight into the style. Televangelists represent a kind of pseudo-religion, a place where faith meets technology, all for the sake of pay-for-play salvation. Architect can either be taken at face value, as the blending of art and mathematics for the purpose of functionality, or it can be taken as a term hinting at some kind of manipulative overseer, a `big brother’ of sorts. Throw in that these songs are considered the Diaries of the Intelligentsia and you have the recipe for a smart-ass band aimed at today’s savvy young public radio listener, political activist, and vegetarian.
Sound like the Decemberists? It should, because the Colin Meloy fronted band are the closest touchstone for the T&A, which is I’m sure not what they intended as an abbreviation for their name, but maybe they should have thought of that before. In this sophomore album from, wouldn’t you know it, a songwriter who is currently a PhD student at MIT (how’s that for smart? Or, as the locals would call him, a `smahtie’), you’ll find a smattering of politics, history, sociology, religion and psychology, all coming from a slightly nasal and whining voice. I’m not sure why these `NPR’ bands always have that signature `indie’ vocal style, as if Ira Glass were fronting numerous groups under various pseudonyms, but it’s a recurring theme that can change anytime, please.
It’s not all cannons and protest songs as it is with the Decemberists, however. There’s more of a darker ’80s or ’90s pop sensibility just under the surface. Besides listening to They Might Be Giants and Ween, you can tell that Jerry Chen and his bandmates also find the time to take in Placebo and the Cure. Does this mean that the T&A (`giggle!’) are a `mensa-goth’ band? I don’t know, but after listening to their latest album, I suppose it’s the most apt made up genre for their sound. Chen does for the Robert Smith voice in psychedelic indie music what Conor Oberst did with it for the earnest alt-country version. I suppose if Ben Gibbard geeked out on his Bauhaus records for a month or so, this might come close to the result.
This is all not to say that the music of T&A (I just can’t help myself) is not enjoyable. Songs on this follow-up album can be outright dramatic and compelling, especially toward the end of the record in tracks like “Stimulus-Bound Behavior” and “An Attempt at Qualification.” It’s one of the few records I would guess was recorded in chronological sequence, as it seems the band sheds its obvious influences early on, and then finally steps into shoes of its own.
I suppose there could be more smarmy titles than Diaries of the Intelligentsia. They could have called it The Real Meloys or Where You’re Colin From. Ha! My guess would be that T&A just won’t last, and hopefully because Chen is going to do something with his PhD. But really, I can only picture this album being the soundtrack for a film that would be the `reality’ version of The Da Vinci Code, that being the story of an awkward and unsightly professor (think Crispin Glover instead of Tom Hanks) falling for a detective (think Sandra Bernhard rather than Audrey Tautou) in the midst of a bunch of Will Shortz penned puzzles. Throw in the brothers from Car Talk as the villains and you’ve got one hell of a smart ass movie.
The Decemberists- Picaresque
Placebo- Sleeping With Ghosts
Death Cab for Cutie- Something About Airplanes