It may be easy to create an indie rock song that eschews structure for instrumental shock-and-awe, or reveals too much information in the lyrics, or pokes fun at messianic rock stars. Doing all of the above is rare, however-- as is making each stray verse or hiccup as arresting as the one before it-- but volcano! manage this on their second record, Paperwork, even better than they did on their debut, Beautiful Seizure.
The mercurial three-piece may now be more cohesive, consistent, and focused, but volcano!'s unpredictability is Paperwork's biggest strength. "'78 Oil Crisis" starts slow with incidental noises, but it settles into a streamlined, linear melody, until the intermittent spasms of guitar become almost calming. A theremin tone anchors the grinding and coughing of "Sweet Tooth" as it grows more paranoid and mechanical, and later makes an insistent earworm from bent-out-of-tune guitar notes. "Astronomer's Ballad" is a doe-eyed Spanish-language serenade that eventually devolves into tightly controlled chaos. None is quite as stunning as the graceful and evocative "Palimpsests", whose well-tamed fuzz-guitar line and increased patter of drums makes With's taps-like call to "wake up, wake up" seem like a test of strength.
The arrhythmic, stuttering beat and meandering melody of "Performance Evaluation Shuffle" is not the first song to send up cubicle culture, but few have sounded so suffocated and desperate. "Africa Just Wants to Have Fun" shows off the many modes of volcano! but flows more naturally than some of their other freewheeling material. The verse gradually builds to a brassy, step-ladder melody, which progresses to a damn-near funky staccato guitar line, as singer/songwriter Aaron With uses every bit of his elastic vocal range to lampoon Bono, most pointedly over the buzzing bass keyboards in its bridge ("Won't you make up your mind/ Are you bored or inspired... You're acting like Christ on the cross/ You look ridiculous").
As with many tracks on Paperwork, the floor drops out of "Tension Loop", but the percussion skitters along with impressive precision, never losing the pulse. The song emerges from gentle drums and a soft, busy guitar plucking, finally torn apart by jagged samples and electronic manipulation that go from pretty to hair-raising, while With's tempered croon grounds the song (with only minimal yodeling). "Slow Jam" (which is anything but) is the record's biggest gamble, a falsetto-laden ode to impotence.
Lord knows why "Kitchen Dance" ends it all with a half-sigh, offering all the band's tricks-- bi-lingual crooning, keyboards that go from whisper to scream, double-time drums that spike the pulse-- without any of the pacing, charm, or measure of the rest of the album. But without volcano!'s occasional over-indulgence, this record would be half as interesting. Even compared to the convulsive and ambitious pop of their better-established peers like Deerhoof, volcano! are set apart by their fearlessness.
- Jason Crock, October 9, 2008