Centuar: “In Streams” Review
Shortly after the stroke of midnight on January 1st, 2001, mere moments after Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric exchanged tipsy fragments of “Auld Lang Syne” on national television, Urbana-Champaign’s closest brush with mainstream relevance terminated. Hum, the band most of us remember for a single massive pop song called “Stars” in the summer of 1995, spent the last two years of their existence cloaked in critical obscurity. While it was as much a coup as a measure of revenge against the corporate rock establishment of the period, a time that saw flannel and lumber turned fashionable, Hum found themselves with little room to maneuver. After 1998’s Downward is Heavenward resulted in no significant increase in the band’s audience (it sold only 38,000 copies), RCA severed their relationship with the band.
Enter Centaur, a band composed of former Hum vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Matt Talbott, drummer Jim Kelly (Sixteen Tons), and bassist Derek Niedringhaus (National Skyline). As a veritable who’s who of the Illinois metro area rock scene, Centaur began performing and writing in earnest before Hum officially dissolved. For all practical purposes, Hum came to an end after a bus accident in Canada (a fitting anti-climax) in 1999 but played two reunion shows on December 29th and 31st of 2000. With a steady live presence, Centaur began gaining momentum. Talbott also found the experience liberating as working within a three-piece structure helped weaken the opinion of Centaur as Hum, Jr.
What Hum lacked in subtlety, producer Keith Cleversley (Flaming Lips, Hum, Spiritualized, The Posies) has more than made up for here with a painstakingly delicate and nuanced production that puts the overwrought and sappy theatrics of Nigel Goodrich to shame. Where Goodrich attempted to manufacture emotion through a bevy of glitzy studio fanfare on Beck’s recent Sea Change, Cleversley manages to capture a tangible sense of pathos at roughly an eighth of the price. Matt Talbott’s talent as a songwriter has matured beyond the turgid spectacle that marked his earlier work. Eschewing much of the sonic deluge for a simpler, more pronounced dynamic, primary emphasis is placed upon Talbott’s ethereal and generally precarious vocals.
In the monstrous “The Same Place”, a simple repetitive riff builds and repeatedly undermines itself in the best possible way, eventually culminating with a mind-blowing sonic assault that captures (and surpasses) anything Hum was capable of. Steeped in textural density, we witness Talbott’s favored technique of heaping layer upon layer of sound over an already sumptuous theme, but this time opting for a more tactful approach of understated melody. In the final minute of “The Same Place”, Centaur provides so many possible thematic directions that one has the sense the song could literally explode. Yet Talbott’s taste is evident as the song disconnects itself and closes abruptly while dangling on the verge of chaos.
“Placencia” furthers Talbott’s Brian Wilson fetish sans-studio theatrics through the use of gentle harmonies and distilled acoustics which provide the best example of Centaur’s coherence. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Pinkerton-era Rivers Cuomo, the lazy surf feel is briefly sacrificed about three minutes in by a series of faux-metal guitar stabs, another example of Centaur’s flirtation with discord, and ultimate respect for restraint.
“Thimbles” explores Talbott’s own experience with tragedy, the death of his child and his concurrent sense of failure. “Glimpse into forever and the empty aching arms and the breath that you could not make/ You still keep us awake,” and, “Ripples on the surface, drops in the sea/ We are nothing no matter how long we stay,” echo disenchantment and alienation in a manner so rife with honesty that the song is almost too stark to bear. Little interpretation is required to realize that the album’s dedication– and the only text printed on the inside of the CD case: “For Henry… and his Mother”)– accounts for the subject matter of “Thimbles”, further adding to the dePressive nature of the track by providing a very real connection to an otherwise isolated rock song. As wave upon wave of subdued dissonance crash upon the sonorous drone of Talbott’s vocals at the song’s climax, the disparity provides an interesting counterpoint in the form of personal suffering opposite bleak, unflinching reality.
In Streams stumbles in two places, namely the ill-advised Flaming Lips kitsch of “Life Begins”, with Talbott’s cracking voice rivaling Wayne Coyne at his most egregious, and the emo-core tedium of “Strangers on 5”. As a general rule, extended keyboard interludes are best avoided in a rock setting, and “Strangers” is certainly no exception. The album’s title track also suffers from the same synth virus but to a lesser degree. Although the Gary Numan synthline is a tad heavy-handed, “In Streams” is an epic track, clocking in at over thirteen minutes and fully encapsulating all of the sonic territory Centaur spent the previous 45 minutes delineating. Incorporating the alt-country sensibility of Wilco and the electronic-rock meld of Radiohead, the title track is an outright masterpiece. And while a brilliant piece for 9:05, the four-minute synth outro is an example of what happens when talented songwriters suddenly decide to become Vangelis and should probably have been omitted.
Synthesized indulgences aside, Centaur have unleashed a wonderfully textured rock album. The band has galvanized the experimentation of Hum in a cohesive package, and with a significantly more tactful hand. Ultimately, the true achievement of this album lies within the absence of major label politics. Without Pressures exerted by BMG Entertainment, RCA, or any other corporate demigod, Talbott was free to pursue precisely the sound he wanted at his own pace and with minimal expectations. The result is a rewarding picture of sorrow and promise from one of the brightest and oft-overlooked songwriters of the past decade.
-Isaiah Violante, October 7th, 2002