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Published: 2001/10/19
by Jesse Jarnow

self-titled – The New Deal

Jive Electro Records 01241-41756-2

When the first New Deal record found its way to my doorstep in 1999, I
didn't know what to make of it. I couldn't even figure out how to open it. I
slit the side with a paper clip, popped the disc in, and stared at the
cover. Depicted there was a now ubiquitous space helmet, carved cartoonishly
in black and silver. Inside the helmet was reflected what I always took to
be another, smaller helmet; an anonymous face. The music on the disc
reflected the stark space age imagery on the packaging: a thumping house
beat topped with ethereally lethargic keyboards.

With their next release – a live EP recorded in December 1999 – the logo was
articulated slightly, shading beginning to make itself apparent. The music
matured a touch. By their third release, a hyper set from Guelph, the image
was outlined and inscribed in white lines, looking less like a cartoon and
more like a piece of contemporary graphic design. The music, now in a white
sleeve with a white sticker, matched it.

On their recent pair of Jive Electro releases – the "Receiver" EP and the
new album – the angle of the shot has changed, to an all out-profile on the
album cover and a head-on gridded-out perspective for the EP. Both of these
renderings are utterly computerized, looking far more professional than the
austere cardboard sleeve packaging of the band's self-released discs. And,
once again, the music has evolved to match the transformation. For a band
who has handled so much of their own day-to-day business over the past few
years, this morph is completely tied into their aesthetic.

How does the graphic design stand with the music itself? Through the first
three releases, it got more and more articulated, like a fractal working
itself out with more and more lines visible each time the music reflected on
itself. The ultra-fine skeletonized cover of "Receiver" turned out to be a
red herring. The EP gave the listener a taste of what to come. Instead, with
the album cover and the material contained therein, the music is smoothed
into danceable waves and rhythms, tightened up and a little bit polished.

The problem, in part, is in the mix. Darren Shearer's kick drum, usually the
gut-pounding axis for the band's grooves, is severely undermixed. The net
result is that the band sounds, at points, like a rhythmically fragmented
organ trio — like Soulive or Medeski, Martin, and Wood on a particularly
trancy day.

The music is swell, albeit slightly less edgy than their previous releases.
When the band first discovered their fusion in 1999 (just as The Disco
Biscuits, Sound Tribe Sector 9, Lake Trout, and others did), there was an
undeniable sense of excitement. It was the next big thing. Now, it's the big
thing. On one hand, the music on The New Deal's self-titled Jive Electro
debut is a realization of the promises sketched on their first album
(recorded the first time they played together). On the other hand, it seems
almost the limit of what The New Deal might be capable of with this
approach.

The band explores a fusion of live and studio material, blending live tracks
with studio production. This successfully adds a new dimension to the sound,
with the addition of parceled out cheering during several songs.
Rhythmically, the occasionally dub-like Talk Show provides an
interesting change of pace, though one that might be lost due to the numbing
repetitiveness of Jamie Shields's keyboard tones, which seem to have lost
the bright luster hinted at on the Guelph EP.

"The New Deal" is an achievement in that it documents what the Canadian trio
has been working on and towards for the past two years. For that, it is
worth hearing, even if it doesn't necessarily provide any further insight.
The next step must be out there somewhere. Thankfully, Shields, Shearer, and
Kurtz are too good, too attuned to each other, to be left behind.

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