[ there's no place like home ]
by Eric J. Iannelli

Before we begin, please indulge me for a moment while I explain the reason behind the obvious bias in the following article.

The Radar Brothers' third album, And the Surrounding Mountains, is surely one of the most stunning releases of the past several years or so, largely because it does not set out with the grand ambition to stun the listener, rather it plods along for the better part of an hour in its listless, slightly dejected, hypnotic way, breaking hearts and soothing nerves as it goes. For me to attempt to conceal my gushing admiration for this soon-to-be classic of the genre would be, I openly confess, an exercise in futility, and it runs the additional unattractive risk of putting off any reader who suspected that I was sneakily cowering under the flag of journalistic objectivity, when in reality this is a shameless endorsement for The Radar Brothers' music, and ATSM in particular.

In the eight years since the Los Angeles-based trio has been in operation, critics and fans alike have felt compelled to compare them to Pink Floyd, Neil Young and The Beatles, but ATSM has a great deal more intricacy than the previous two full-lengths, a self-titled CD (1996) on the now defunct Restless Records and The Singing Hatchet (1999) on the also now defunct See Thru Broadcasting label, giving the songs a much more layered, labyrinthine feel, not unlike the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.

Radar Brothers frontman Jim Putnam must be aware of the connection, because he brings the infamous pop composer into the conversation long before I had planned to.

[ the radar brothers ]
[ give a listen! ] "The Wake of All
That's Past" MP3

"That whole thing about Brian Wilson hearing things in his head and putting them down to tape how he heard them, I just can't believe that. If I hear something in my head, it turns out completely different," he says. Jim has a tendency to state something like this matter-of-factly, only to punctuate it with a goofy, absent-minded laugh, as if to imply that this business of making music is beyond him somehow.

And to hear him tell it, it is. Despite rebuilding his studio, a mysterious operation called Phase III, he claims that the impetus for ATSM stems from that which has served as fuel for the greatest artistic fires since time immemorial: personal trauma.

"I was going through, ah...a bit of a time," Jim explains with enough hesitation to show that he has no desire to explain in any more detail. "I was a little bit removed, in a weird way. A lot more of the subconscious was kicking in." The same subconscious drives produced the album's sub-theme, a series of interconnected filial titles running through the extended family except for sisters-in-law and grandparents.

"I don't think as a whole it was conscious. It turned into a parody of itself. First it was Uncles, and then Mothers, titled because of the lyrics, and then Sisters for the same reason. It's a whole personal lyrical reference -- I could go on and on," Jim says. But he doesn't.

The main theme, of course, stems from the mountains surrounding Los Angeles, pictured on the cover art and the inspiration for the album title. "It just came from driving around LA. You're always driving toward mountains, because it's in a basin between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Santa Monica Mountains."

This repeated and widespread misunderstanding of the City of Angels is, one senses, one of the few issues capable of rousing Jim's much-repressed ire.

"There's this idea that LA is all, like, Red Hot Chili Peppers," he continues, noticeably bothered. "I don't know anyone like that. Not going that far back, in the late '70s and early '80s, there was lot of good stuff going on here. LA gets this bad rap for being the entertainment center, with all the cheesy Hollywood types. I live a few miles from Hollywood, and you see the Capitol Records building, but if you want to see those actor types, you have to go into the West Side. That whole thing is just one percent of [the city]. They haven't realized that LA isn't one big shopping mall. Leonard Cohen lives here, and no one gives him a hard time about it."

"It's a funny place. I guess I have a special place in my heart for it. Now, what was I talking about?"

Neither of us can recall exactly where we left off before Jim embarked on his tangent, so we move back into a discussion about ATSM which, in addition to a more profound and textural feel, also bears the marks of a more collaborationist effort, with increased input from drummer Steve Goodfriend and bassist Senon Williams.

The scope widened as a result of the studio, the aforementioned Phase III, and its redevelopment over the course of nine long, anticipation-filled months. Better equipment meant more technological sophistication and the ability to incorporate experimental ideas into the songs as they progressed from exceedingly rough demos to finished versions.

"We did all the other records on a 16-track, and I now have a 24-track machine. It's a bigger space, more functional. It's still small," Jim says, "but we're just learning as we go." The band was able to create "more orchestral kind of stuff" by accommodating a mix of whim and inspiration.

"When the album was done, I didn't know we had made a record," he continues. "It has a mind of its own, this music thing. It tells you you're done."

[ and the surrounding mountains ]

The signal turned out to be premature. "We finished it. We actually mastered it. Then a few weeks later, I said, 'You know, this record isn't really that good.'"

"This earlier version had a different song on it, 'In the Trees.'" Jim gave it the axe, because, quite frankly, "It sucked. Bottom line. I don't think it was up to par with the rest of the songs."

Nor did it fit in with the overall mood of ATSM, for the album has the same peculiar quality as The Radar Brothers' publicity photo. The three of them stare out from the portrait with equally uncomfortable looks: a bit impatient on the one hand, a bit resigned on the other, suggesting that there's a before and after to the photo that we don't see. None looks entirely at ease with the idea of having his picture taken, or why it's even necessary in the first place -- much like the ritualistic October staging of family Christmas photos. And that perhaps captures the essence of ATSM, an experience similar to scanning one of those sepia-tinged photographs recovered from a box in a damp, forgotten corner of the attic.

"There's always a mood that I want to go for, but it never really happens," explains Jim, who is aware of some of the complaints regarding the sameness of the tracks on the album, as well as in the whole of The Radar Brothers' released oeuvre. "I really would like to do more upbeat stuff, but I don't know how. There are always one or two songs that are upbeat in a weird sort of way, but there's also something odd about them. They just don't gel."

The abundance of songs that haven't gelled ("We've only got, like, 400 of them.") could be the impetus for a B-sides, demos and rarities album in the future. "I'd like to get working on that, because it would be fun," he says enthusiastically, trying to get a fix on my own feelings about it. "I haven't talked to (Merge) about doing it yet. They've given us a lot more leeway. I really trust them and they don't fuck around."

For now, Jim, Senon and Steve are more preoccupied with their forthcoming three-and-a-half week U.S. tour with Black Heart Procession. It's their third time out on the road since the ATSM appeared in early May; a U.K. tour came first, followed by another across the US in support of The Breeders.

It might seem like a lot of time to devote to an album that as yet hasn't made it to more than a few college radio charts, but The Radar Brothers plan to tour "as much as you can tour on a record," according to Jim. "It can't do any harm."

"I think it's our best record," he says as a way of closing. "Which is funny, because I thought it was going to be our worst. It just shows you how you lose perspective."

Then he adds as an afterthought: "You're just so up in it," trailing off with his awkward, endearing laugh.

Inside Earpollution:
And the Surrounding Mountains album review

[ the singing hatchet ]
[ give a listen! ] "Shoveling Sons" MP3

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