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Published: 2002/07/23
by Bill Stites

Here In The USA – RANA

Bone Saw Records 009

Here in the USA, the debut album from New Jersey's RANA, sounds like
a barely remembered dream of my childhood. Some real characters from my
life are to be found floating in its haze, bumping elbows with a motley
collection of archetypes, abstractions and familiar figures I've never met
before. The pieces are all there, but the proportions have been changed,
until stories and their significance are stretched and twisted like images
in a funhouse mirror. As with the most powerful dreams, this music obeys an
alien logic so intensely right that it lingers in your bones while your
brain, still under a spell, tries to reassemble the rules of the mundane
world, puzzling why existence can't always be this blissfully oblique.

And that's fitting: RANA are the first band I've ever gotten into whose
members are literally my peers, ranging in age from about a year younger
than me – 24 – to a few months older. And to me, at least, their music
captures something ephemeral about what it means to be of this age, in this
world, stumbling our way into the future with only the experiences of our
past to build upon.

"Our" past, of course, being meaningfully distinct from the past, a place
where far too many musicians reside. RANA aren't about to fall into the
trap of emulating Zeppelin, Hendrix, or any other artist whose essential
work occurred before they were even born: to do so would almost inevitably
rob the original music of the vibrancy and vitality that only its context
can imbue, circumstances which the imitator can never fully understand, much
less re-create. Instead, Here in the USA draws heavily on the music
of the early 80s punk rock, the Talking Heads, Back in Black-era
AC/DC, U2 when they were actually good, etc. the period when the band
members were first learning to walk and talk and read: the sounds that
affect us subliminally, and become part of our permanent mental landscape
whether we want them to or not. What most bands would ignore, RANA embrace,
but, looking back on innocence from adulthood as they are, the memories are
colored, and aged like wine, yielding a concoction original, grounded, and,
most welcome of all, honest, that crucial quality conspicuously
lacking in almost all so-called "indie rock".

Even the older influences RANA do invoke are passed through this filter, and
the curious sounds produced only serve to further underscore RANA's
originality. The bizarre, lovely "For Some Time" is the first song I've
heard in forever that reminds me of the Beatles in a good way – the
melody and lyrics are clearly influenced by those wacky Liverpudlians, but
the accompaniment is a little bit jamband, and a lot new wave, resulting in
a unique, too sincere to be cloying, pleasant pop trifle that drifts in and
out your head effortlessly on a summer day in New York.

Speaking of which, maybe the coolest auditory acknowledgment ever of what it
means to live through this season in this city occurs in an earlier track,
"Notso Mopso". The song itself is practically the blueprint for the rest of
the album, smelting together a great obtuse vocal melody with catchy,
unobtrusive guitar playing over a 7/4 groove as solid and slippery as any
Ive heard. At the end of the tune they're doing start-stop, breaking down
the main riff. The first couple times I listened to it, I was marveling
over the cool little sonic squiggles and curlicues they shoehorn into the
short gaps. It wasn't until I headphonesed the disc for the first time,
though, that I realized that the atmospheric stuff was only in one channel
— the left. Piped into the right channel, only during the breaks, are
commercials recorded off a Latin radio station. Depending on where you
listen to the disk, that may be immediately obvious to you, but for me, in
Brooklyn, Im hearing salsa all day, coming from other apartments, the deli
downstairs, the cars on 4th Avenue, so I never realized it was actually part
of the CD until I could effectively shut all other sounds out. And another
bridge is built; RANA and reality bleed together on yet another front

Not for that alone, the production of this album is an absolute marvel. It
has a fractal quality to it — no matter what scale you focus your attention
on, it seems equally whole. Chase it out to the margins and you'll find
there are whole wondrous worlds of sound dancing around the edges of these
seemingly simple tunes. At the beginning of "My One Dear Son", the song's
final line — "when the love don't fade, when the love don't fade" echoes
deep below the frantic, polyrhythmic intro. At the end of "Skin and Bone"
electronic squelches nestle in naturally with the Dire Straits-on-speed
riffage. Inconspicuous overdubs abound — check out the genius second
keyboard part whirling around with the other lines of "Ghetto Queen". And
the final track, and album centerpiece, "It's So Hard (Believe Me)", is
practically a universe unto itself. The same day I first heard Telemundo in
"Notso, I took the album to Washington Square Park and let "It's So Hard"
weave its magic while watching an impromptu demonstration of Japanese
swordfighting technique. The sounds of the city and the layers of
shimmering noise piled onto Ryan Thornton's time-frozen tribal drumming
blended until I no longer knew which was which, the sun above a catalyst,
like the electric spark that makes hydrogen and oxygen link hands and become
water but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Perhaps the most welcome aspect of this refreshing disc is that
acknowledgment: that great production, along with great songwriting, are the
cornerstones of great rock albums. That doesn't just apply to the overdubs
and details — Here in the USA's every sound seems carefully selected
and completely thought-out, and the songs each inhabit a distinctive sonic
space that lends them a kind of fourth-dimensional character. The intro to
"Remember My Address", thundering live, is compressed into a tiny,
claustrophobic space that only enhances the loneliness and bitterness at the
song's core. The opener, "Good Book", is overdriven just enough to pump up
its rock swagger into a strut. And the ragged edges on "Im Not Orfeo" help
keyboardist Matt Durant achieve what I'd chalked up as impossible — a
soulful, meaningful, ass-kicking rock piano ballad, in this day and age.

Though at least three of RANA's members are capable – even gifted – as
singers, songwriters and lyricists, this is clearly Durant's album. Of the
disc's 10 tracks, five are his, which is an interesting call, seeing as he
was the last of the songwriters to really blossom and mature (assuming
Thornton doesn't start churning out songs anytime soon, though Im quite
sure he's got it in him). The upside to, and, I assume, reason for that is
that his material is the freshest, and therefore best represents RANA's
cutting edge — "Orfeo" is nothing less than astounding, and he also
contributes the album's straight-up best song, "Sad and Lonesome". The
downside is that bassist Andrew Southern and guitarist Scott Metzger, both
at least as talented as their keyboardist, don't get to shine quite as much
as I, and many others, would have liked.

The fact that the album runs almost exactly 46 minutes is assuredly not a
coincidence that's the length of a 12" LP. As a nod to their rock roots,
that's touching and classy. However, I'm personally an unapologetic
modernist, and I think, given that it's only being sold on CD, they could
have safely packed a few more songs onto this motherfucker, and quite
probably made it a better album in the process.

Andrew's two contributions, the brilliant, un-rhyming "Remember My Address",
and the is-that-a-tongue-in-your-cheek-or-are-you-just-happy-to-see-me?
rocker "Skin and Bone", complement Matt's work excellently. Where Matt is
elliptical, Andrew is literal, both lyrically and musically: transcribed,
Drew's lyrics read like prose, completely unlike Matt's cryptic shards of
meaning. Matt's songs make much greater use of space, and have an
interesting flexible quality that makes it seem as though any one element,
or perhaps even several elements, could change on the fly and the song would
still somehow be the same. By contrast, Drew's tunes seem fixed,
practically set in stone, except perhaps for the jam hinted at in "Skin and
Bone"'s outro. In this sense, Andrew's compositions reflect his
couldn't-be-clearer, unadorned metronomic bass playing, and Matt's
I'll-play-when-I-want-to impressionism. For Here in the USA's first four
tracks, Andrew's songs alternate with Matt's, and while I don't mean to
suggest they should have kept that relationship up for the disc's entire
duration, there's a nice two-sides-of-the-same-coin symmetry to it. One or
two more Andrew tunes in the album's quieter, reflective second half could
have broadened the total picture of RANA presented quite a bit.

If Andrew's songs are Matt's more candid counterparts, helping to capture a
better representation of the same image, Scott's three entries seem to have
an almost entirely different agenda than his bandmates'. "Car Bombed
Again", by far the album's most straightforward number, really is nothing
more or less than a heartfelt country ballad about drinkin' – the first
successful one of those Ive heard in awhile, too, come to think of it.
It's an amazing testament to Scott's skills as a singer and storyteller that
the tune actually comes off as bittersweet, instead of silly, which it
assuredly would have in the hands of a lesser artist. In that sense, one
can feel that spirit of his friends Ween: he achieves the same boldly
defiant quality perfected by the admirals of the Poop Ship, and expertly
toes the same line between goofiness and dead, reverent, seriousness.
Still, if Here in the USA were one song shorter, had Scott only
contributed "Car Bombed" and "Ghetto Queen", one might be forgiven for
thinking that he has a inclination towards novelty, or doesn't take
songwriting as seriously as his cohorts do.

Any such suspicion, however, would go right out the window – along with
every other expectation set up by the album's first 10 songs – when the
ringing last chord of "I'm Not Orfeo" first fades out and sunrise breaks
over Scott's masterpiece, "It's So Hard".

Up until that point, nothing about the album, save the brief coda to "Skin
and Bone", suggests that RANA are the least bit interested in group
improvisation, and only their (thankfully tasteful) eclecticism implies any
connection to the music for which this publication is named. By the time
"It's So Hard" ends, though, over nine minutes later, RANA have accomplished
something far more difficult and important than endlessly chasing one
another around the circle of fifths: by relegating it back to its proper
role as only one part of a complete, compelling whole, they've made jamming
matter again.

The final track's first ninety seconds sound like nothing so much as morning
coming to life, as sounds of all shapes and sizes scurry about, foraging for
sustenance, preying and being preyed upon. Then the drums kick in, and for
the next seven minutes the band glides along instrumentally, just barely
building, no longer applying their impressive synergy to writing and
arranging, but to defining a psychedelic rock environment unlike any other
Ive ever encountered. While they are collectively improvising, the result
couldn't sound less like the Phish-derived noodling and leapfrogging that's
practically petrified in recent years, rendering what was once joyful and
refreshing stale and lifeless. Instead they've traveled back in time and
found a long-lost thread to follow: they jam the way the Velvet Underground
jammed, or the way the Dead did in '66, only fully aware of, and subtly
incorporating, the decades of music that have followed since last this kind
of playing was undertaken seriously. Scott's guitar hums and wails, Matt's
keyboards converse, cascading ambient sheets tumble over one another, and
all the while Andrew and Ryan pulse along primally, crafting a breathing,
lifelike sonic space that somehow seems to last much longer than its running
time would allow, yet is always over far too soon.

After coasting along, sculpting sound, for longer than the combined running
time of any two of the album's other tracks, Scott begins to sing. Thirty
seconds of pop perfection later the song and the album are over, and you
realize that RANA don't just play rock and roll, they are rock and roll,
more than any band to come down the pike in years. First they turn in an
impressive array of not-a-second-too-long rock chestnuts, fast and slow,
full of hope and longing. Then they abruptly pull a 180 and prove
themselves to be completely unhurried conceptual improvisers, seemingly
willing to explore a simple drumbeat all day if necessary. And then, in the
end, the improv turns out to be in the interest of the song as a whole, as
it always should be.

The truly amazing part is that they have somehow achieved all of this
without ever exhibiting the symptoms of that terrible and epidemic
affliction, irony, which has killed off entire genres of music in recent
years. Somehow, be it through raw willpower, or just their overwhelming
love for what they do, RANA have done what most bands, even most good bands,
can never quite pull off: they're no longer pretending to rock, or merely
wishing they were rocking, these guys are actually doing it. They're the
real deal. Given that, those of us who love rock improvisation should be
grateful that RANA have taken an interest in it. Bands like them are going
to carry jamming into its next great era.

And, if they can keep producing albums like this one, by all rights they'll
forever shatter in the process the cop-out stereotype that improvising bands
can't be done justice in a studio. Here in the USA is an open
challenge to this entire scene, an invitation to find again what has been
lost, before it's too late. Here's hoping many answer its call.

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