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Miracles of Modern Science: Mean Dreams
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/9/2015)
Perhaps it’s a reaction to the synthesizer-based, computer-generated commercial pop sound, but it seems that more groups than ever are appearing with strings and other orchestral instrumentation. That sort of thing has been around for a long time with groups like Electric Light Orchestra and Harry Chapin’s band with a full-time cellist both in the 1970s, but I don’t remember a time when there were so many people taking string instruments into the realm of contemporary rock and alternative music. They are not just for trying to sound classical, but inventing new things to do with the instruments. Just this year, we have featured in this review series recordings by Ben Folds, Pocket Panda, The Ballroom Thieves, and Concetta Abbate, and last year recordings by Christopher Bell, Gabriel Kahane and Arc Iris, to name a few. This week we have another alternative band in which string instruments are an integral part of the group. In fact it’s a kind of augmented string quartet. The group is called Miracles of Modern Science, and their new CD, their second full-length recording is called Mean Dreams.
Miracles of Modern Science was formed on the campus of Princeton University, where the members were students. Bassist Evan Younger and mandolinist Josh Hirshfeld met in 2004 using the then, mostly college-oriented Facebook network. They worked a a duo and tried styles ranging from country to sea shanties. They were eventually joined by violinist Kieran Ledwidge and cellist Geoff McDonald, and finally their original drummer Tyler Pines, who later left the group in 2013, to be replaced by Russian-born drummer Serge Terentev. After the members graduation, they relocated to Brooklyn, NY. Upright bass player Evan Younger serves as the lead vocalist and front-man. As mentioned, the group is a kind of string quartet with the mandolin replacing the second violin, plus rock-style drums.
Miracles of Modern Science released their debut album called Dog Year, which won a lot of critical praise and landed them a feature story on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Their music contains the edgy attitude of the alternative rock scene, despite the all-acoustic instrumentation, with clever lyrics and often-quirky arrangements with odd rhythms and arrangements that seems completely counter to expectations for their instrumentation. Front-man Younger states of the group’s makeup that the strings are the band. They followed Dog Years in 2013 with an EP called Meems. Now after personal circumstances which have apparently made holding the band together more difficult, they are out with Mean Dreams and the group continues their distinctive sound that makes you think alternative rock first and then realize that it’s made up of orchestral instrumentation. The band’s eclectic sound remains with a kind of nervous quality with tricky rhythms that reminds me of the great British band XTC, and MOMS -- as they abbreviate their name -- add their sometimes snarky lyrics. The result is an album that is quirky and fun and full of interesting musical ideas, and with a sound that is miles from the classical influence one would expect from their instrumentation, but with some attractive pop hooks. The tracks, though distinct, seem to run together on the album.
Leading off is a piece called Follow Your Heart (Or Something). The lyrics are somewhat autobiographical, while the tracks emphasizes the rock side of the band’s influences. <<>>
One of the more clever pieces on this interesting album is Don’t Feed the Party Animal, which sounds like a song that was dreamed up after someone came up with the phrase that makes up the title. The piece has a punky edge but with quirky rhythmic shifts. <<>>
Miracles of Modern Science’s influence by the band XTC can be heard on what I think is the album’s highlight track Jimjams. It’s clever lyrically, and musically a little masterpiece of intelligent quirkiness. <<>>
Even more eccentric is a tune called Tap Dance which is not as melodic as others but still has a lot going for it, with the group’s distinctive writing. <<>>
A track called Theme from The Magicians is another piece that features the band veering back and forth between classically-influenced art rock and arty alternative rock. <<>>
That segues directly into Fidget, which in its opening section is as close to a laid-back as this album gets, though the piece wends its way into the intriguing art-rock-alternative hybrid that is the Miracles of Modern Science trademark. <<>>
The short 32-minute album ends with a piece whose title could almost sum up the band Never Knew Normal, with the quintet’s typical quirky but energetic pastiche of musical ingredients. <<>>
Mean Dreams, the new second full album by the Brooklyn-based band Miracles of Modern Science is another excellent example of younger-generation groups turning to orchestral instrumentation for their sound. With no guitar in the band, and a configuration like a classical string quartet but with a mandolin instead of a second violinist or the violist, plus drums, the group does the unexpected and serves up music with the emphasis clearly on the alternative rock side. With also somewhat unconventional lyrics, Miracles of Modern Science have come up with an adventurous but appealing and downright fun record, with the eclecticism tempered by melodic hooks and a kind of light-hearted atmosphere to the whole project. In addition to their original music, the band has also done tongue-in-cheek covers of other music and posted the videos. One was called Bon Joviver, with the band doing a Bon Jovi song in the style of Bon Iver. The new album is all original, and their influences are so wide-ranging, that I think that it will win over even those who might not normally go in for this kind of thing.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” This album has a few short instances of undesirable studio effects, like distorted vocals or over-driven-sounding acoustic instrumentation, but it’s not much of a distraction, and the recording has somewhat better dynamic range than the average heavily-compressed sound of commercial pop, which results a nice punchy drum sound.
“Clever” and “creative” are the two words that immediately spring to mind in talking about the new album by Miracles of Modern Science. The group turns a mutated classical string quartet into something quite entertaining and memorable.
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