namelessnumberheadman
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namelessnumberheadman

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The best kept secret in music

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Rating: 7.1

It's been four years since Namelessnumberheadman released their last album, Your Voice Repeating, a captivating mix of live instruments and laptop pop back when that idea was a bit more novel. Things are a little different these days, especially with the initial bliss and ensuing oversaturation of the Postal Service now over, but Namelessnumberheadman are far from stuck in that same rut. As before, they hold onto some of the hallmarks of their Midwestern peers: In not just the lilting drawl of vocalist Chuck Whittington, but also the titanic drums that almost overbear their gentler tendencies, Namelessnumberheadman recall Flaming Lips, but there's also a similar strain between this three-man group and the Minus Story, Doris Henson, and even Sparklehorse, with impassioned, effeminate melodies struggling against waves of washed-out keyboards and clamoring percussion.

The crashing Steve Drozd-like drums are still present and accounted for, but the melodies more pronounced, the acoustic guitars take more focus, and the gentle drum pads quietly putter behind them. There's nothing like the cascading sonics of the chorus of "Going to Breathe Again" or "(At Least) Three Cheers for Cause and Effect" (both from Your Voice Repeating) here, but there's also a lot less genre sidestepping and more honest-to-god synthesis of folk and electronic elements. It's apparent from the very beginning of opener "Animal Kingdom", where the drums quickly recede to a speedy strum and a paean to more earthly preoccupations from Whittington, concerning "cicada's wings," "wet worms," and "leaf's veins", all leading to a slower, more organic pulse. Likewise, "The Beginning" puts all its faith in a hook that has little to do with electronics, but climbing guitars and Whittington's croon, and breaks for an almost campfire-appropriate respite of only guitar-and-voice. More mechanical percussion pokes its head out behind the plucking of "Branches of Branches of Branches" or fluttering extraneous samples on "An Argument to Stand On", but its always just another texture making up a seamless whole. Some of the record's most arresting moments aren't wrested from a keyboard, but a pedal steel guitar, as on late-album highlight "Lesser Fates".

Whittington's vocals are more adventurous and try out a larger range, while guitars climb, they simper, they proclaim, they insinuate, but they don't always assert themselves. Those big, crashing drums often undermine the peaks and valleys of the songs like a house of cards, and otherwise sharp melodies like "Opposable Thumbs" as dynamic as they could be because of it. Still, that's a minor complaint compared to the evolution of the band, who sat out the lap-pop hangover to develop more of their own identity as swooning folk artists for the next century.

-Jason Crock, July 30, 2007
- Pitchfork Media


I hereby vow to never again use words like “amalgam” or “hybrid” to describe the Kansas City band Namelessnumberheadman’s music. By now – their third album Wires Reply -- the sci-fi electronic side of their music and the rustic acoustic side have become so organically fused that it isn’t fair to even talk about it as a combination, as some kind of experiment; those words imply tentative steps towards something new, but there’s nothing tentative about their music. By now this is just what they do, it’s what their music is: its own entity. Three men play acoustic guitar and keyboards and drums and who knows what else. They make music that sounds ancient and futuristic, of the natural world and of the modern one.

And that natural/modern dialogue is especially pertinent to Wires Reply: it’s in the music and a central theme of the lyrics. It’s an album marked by layers of sound; it’s as if the layers could be mapped out, like the layers of the earth, except that we’re dealing with clouds and other intangibles here, not solid rock. The album opens with unleashed drums but then glides onto pillowy surfaces: comfortable but active, with rising harmony voices, progressing guitars, and strange sounds that could be insects or UFOs. The opening lyrics suggest it’s insects: “Spider legs, cicada wings and pulsing wet worms / fingernails and petrified leaves’ veins.” With intricate details we also get proclamations, promises of comfort when the civilized world disintegrates and we’re headed back to nature: “When all the brigs are blown apart, I’ll shelter you.”

The second track – an especially soothing, building and complicated one called “The Beginning” (their big radio hit, in my dream world) – has a ringing chorus that offers another promise, an elusive one: “I’ll follow through with what I say.” The sense of anticipation that something is about to happen builds with the next song “The Hour Has Come,” which introduces the circuitry imagery of the album title while also implying impending something: “Small stage for steady hands / and the hour has come.” Matching the piqued interest those words communicate is the music, which sounds simple enough at first (drums, piano), but there’s so much more to it. Is that something electronic moving under brushed drums? Listen close; this is one of those albums, where the closer you listen the more you hear.

Listen to the banjo enter on “Branches of Branches of Branches”; the techno pulse that slides into something completely different a little ways into “An Argument to Stand On”; the crackling sounds in the break of “Opposable Thumb,” which also boasts an explosive, vaguely Flaming Lips-ish instrumental hook; the piano accompanied by strange on/off machine and/or breathing sounds during the gorgeous and completely eerie “Scatterbirds.” Or simply listen to the numerous times a few voices sing together, a temporary choir. Or how disarmingly direct, how earnest, the one voice singing is during “An Argument to Stand On,” after the pulsating beat disappears. “I’m so sure of myself / I’m uncompromising / without fear / without a chance / without an argument to stand on.” It’s easy to imagine these words as the outlook of a stubborn leader taking the people down with him (the President, say?)…but by the end of the song the same heartfelt vocals seem to take the perspective of the people on the other side of the story, feeling both anger and dwindling hope: “…while my prayers for peace are littered with profanity.”

As the album proceeds, the more it starts to resemble one story, or at least a song series built around recurring themes: global birth and death, war, environmental destruction, and rebirth, nature reclaiming what man destroyed. “Free / safely gone / you’re unhindered from the trappings of this town,” voices sing on the album’s final track. They could be simply saying goodbye to a friend who’s left town, but in the context of this album they could be singing goodbye to the whole human race. Perhaps that’s why they sing and play with more spirit and drive than ever, why their voices soar and the instruments strike with the force of lightning. In either case the impression the song gives is one of both release and uncertainty, freedom and confusion. It’s like this remarkable album itself: a daring step forward that’s also filled with a deep sense of yearning and a sincere, somewhat worried curiosity about what tomorrow will bring. - Erasing Clouds


Rating: 8.7

In concert, Namelessnumberheadman are a frightening jumble of keyboards and samplers; cords snake to and from a formidable onstage mixing board. With the exception of the often-singing drummer, the musicians are almost comically de-emphasized, moving between instruments in precise yet panicky little dashes. It all looks less like a science lab than like a low-budget set of one, complete with slightly overacting extras.

Given this visual and the band's off-putting moniker (it's a reference to Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis, if you must know, but then you mustn't), you might expect Namelessnumberheadman to play something profoundly anal-retentive, like microhouse. You certainly wouldn't be prepared for distinctly Western vocal harmonies of "Going to Breathe Again", the laid-back verses of "Every Fiber", or the Nick Drake strum that opens "Mid-Continent". For all the considerable studio trickery on display throughout NNHM's second album, its primary instrument is the acoustic guitar and its primary mood sweetly elegiac.

Your Voice Repeating is by no means a folk album crusted over with itchy-scratchy production. It is, like Suzanne Vega's 99.9� F (and not much else), a completely natural union of "organic" (guitar, porch) and "mechanical" (bedroom, headphones, ACID 4.0) approaches to songwriting-- each informing, mocking and correcting the other along the way. A perfect example of the resulting tension is an instrumental track titled, well, "Tension Envelopes". This is a trance title if there ever was one, and for a minute it seems as if things are heading in that direction, albeit with added twang. Over a sampled kick counting eighths, a six-beat-long guitar loop shimmers, shifting hypnotically against the beat. The song then builds to the shaggy-dog version of your classic dancefloor crescendo (beats, riffs, keys pile up like an unattended Tetris game)-- only to resolve, three minutes in, into a languid concerto of mewling slide guitars.

Another stunner, "Going to Breathe Again", opens with a tinny breakbeat, tosses up one exquisitely sculpted guitar verse reminiscent of The Shins in both sound and quality, and ends on a surprise compromise between the two. Following this level of sophistication, it's hard to go back to, say, The Postal Service, or any other band that dresses up verse/chorus/verse structures in IDM drag and calls its job done.

NNHM's songs have a tendency to melt around our ears. "Woke Up to Find" is a Moebius strip of a ballad living inside its own ambient intro: A simple main melody is clearly forthcoming-- almost present-- but never quite pulls itself into focus. Elsewhere, a perfect-pop verse disappears suddenly in a swirl of elements, swallowed up by the very organs and chimes that made it pleasant to begin with. The real wonder is that there's not a jarring turn on the album: All transitions seem to heed their own dreamlogic. Mutations are often subtle and gradual. My uneducated guess about Namelessnumberheadman's production methods is that they sample tidbits of their songs in real time, proceed to digitally twist them into abstraction, then un-twist back. What results is a weirdly humanistic, highly accessible approach to experimental electronics.

Your Voice Repeating is an album shot through with digital pulses, yet there's not a single moment where you don't feel the hand on the button. Namelessnumberheadman succeed in creating a technocratic pasture where machines are given souls but don't turn on their masters. The album's title, and a short song that contains it, spell out the band's manifesto better than I could: Your voice, even put through the rude mechanics of repetition, is still your voice.

-Michael Idov, June 17, 2004
- Pitchfork Media


Namelessnumberheadman's (NNHM) debut full-length took me by complete surprise. As much as the typical music-listening person wants simple labels and simple music, NNHM defies labels and doesn't really make simple music. By mixing lo-fi pop sensibilities with modern electronic beats, synths, and synthetic sounds, NNHM can sound different on every track and with every listen. Although not surprised by the Kansas City trio's sophomore release, I'm no less blown away.

If genres meant anything, one might describe NNHM's sound as electronic lo-fi indie pop, with hints of bands as disparate as The Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, the Notwist, and the Postal Service heard on these tracks. But NNHM doesn't sound like any of them; this is a unique style, blending sweet, embracing pop structures with intricate beats, textured synths, and stellar songwriting. If you still can't imagine what NNHM sounds like, I don't blame you, but that only means the album should be required listening.

This album cemented itself into my subconscious when the second track, "Every Fiber," bursts out of the intro track with a crescendo of guitars and crashing drums and fades into the most glorious pop song, light and dreamy and psychedelic in tone. "Full & Frayed" feels deceptively simple, with soft vocals and acoustic guitars playing over some hushed beats, giving the band a bit of a Radiohead feel, while my favorite track, "Going to Breathe Again," mixes vocals, beats, guitars, and synths into one glorious, swirling song that's surprisingly personal in feel while upbeat enough to be catchy. The textured beats on "Attic Fan" contrast nicely with the soft piano and soft vocals.

Occasionally the band lets the indie-pop take a second place to the electronic, as on the inherently danceable "Tension Envelopes," but there's organic guitars here keeping the track grounded, and the track quickly changes tone to a mellow, almost country feel with lap steel providing a mood that wouldn't be out of place on a Will Oldham track. I doubt another band, anywhere, could pull off such contrasting tones so well in one fantastic song. There's some interesting electronic elements on the more instrumentally themed "Mid-Continent" and "(At Least) Three Cheers for Cause & Effect" as well, both taking soaring, textured approaches.

Put the cumbersome band name - taken from a character in Steven Soderbergh's film Schizopolis - out of your head; NNHM is not difficult to listen to or enjoy, it's just difficult to define. The music here is actually quite beautiful, for even with synthesizes and electronic beats, NNHM's music is enveloping and lovely. With lush texturing and impeccable production, Your Voice Repeating is a brilliant release, and one without a doubt worth repeating.

-Jeff Marsh
03/15/04 - Delusions of Adequacy


Rating: B+

As the seventies came to a close, and the remnants of a decade of social protest and realignment long since snorted and discoed away swooned towards the dead-ended Reagan years to come, Hollywood’s social conscience was in a state of rigor mortis. Trying in vain to summon up new films of dissent, they overstretched themselves, and the result was the half-baked release of some of their most terrifically awful social protest films in the history of American cinema. One of the absolute worst/best was John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy, a sort of King Kong for the genetically-misaligned. Rigid with terror over ecological deterioration and industrial waste, the movie imagined a creature that would lay waste to humanity in the name of Mother Nature; that would emerge from the woods to reclaim its sylvan stomping grounds and slew an entire wilderness’ worth of loggers and researchers. Part bear, part squirrel, part rabbit, part groundhog. All the myriad beasts were in there somewhere, and yet the creature itself was the most grotesquely unoriginal fiend you can imagine. The parts were all too distinct; you could see the head of the bear just as surely as the fur of the rabbit. They didn’t blend. For whatever reason, and for the first time since I’d seen it, I remembered this film as I was listening to Namelessnumberheadman’s second album, Your Voice Repeating. On this outing, the Kansas City band employs only the recognizable and distinguishable, but their deft sense of collage and reinvention meld those familiar noises into one of the young year’s most endlessly beautiful creatures.

Using slight variations on the tried-and-true postmodern studio band, Namelessnumberheadman combines acoustic guitars with fractured electronic beats and thrift-store synths, but before you start to think “so far, so not good,” vocal moans and vibrant choruses of ‘Ba Da Da Da’ sink in through these crisp soundscapes and make so much more out of the sound than one could expect by now, given the output of bands like Grandaddy, Ill Lit, The Elected, etc. Their vocals don’t typically rely on lyrics, and often the most visceral effects come from a wordless hum left to percolate and simmer for several seconds before you begin to see the uselessness in linguistic expression. Singing, moaning, humming; they all flutter around these semi-instrumental songs without questioning whether they’ve entered at the wrong point or misread the script. Even if this ain’t the right room, not even the right band, these voices are gonna start up right now and you better damn well get comfy in your studio chair ‘cause in a moment it’ll all be too late. This is the theater of helter skelter at work, but it’s far too demanding to be just an accident.

With this astral background, NNH never need to decide whether or not their songs are lyrically-oriented. “Going to Breathe Again,” for example, contains really only one vocal chorus, and it doesn’t show up until you’re accustomed to its jumpy beat and tingling synths and have begun to enjoy the song as an instrumental, which is of course where it returns as soon as that final syllable dies off. Songs lead into each other like rooms in a sand castle, known only by the hand of the creator unless you are crude enough to ask about the floor plan; the morose piano and gurgling synths of “Full & Frayed” drain into the circling guitar and crescendoed synths on “Tension Envelopes,” before the track heats into a swirling maelstrom and crashes out.

Yet for a band that has made such a concerted effort at sustaining a single emotional tone without regard to track boundaries, they never allow restlessness to settle in. The alterations between tracks are noticeable, but well-crafted and subtle. The churning guitars on “Three Cheers for Cause & Effect” bare their teeth at you from behind three sheets of solid glass and dazzling chimes it’s spent the better part of the last two minutes erecting, not removing itself as a threat but giving you the composure to return to the window glass. You couldn’t possibly remove a single track for a mix tape or compilation; the rest of the work would crumble without it, and the one removed would refuse to eat or sleep until it was put back in its place.

As for the studio touches, Namelessnumberheadman take all the credit, and they deserve it. Their calm, unobtrusive tweaking augments the cut-and-dry organic instruments with a vivid astrosensuality, proving that the studio was always the tool, and never the craft. With the release of Your Voice Repeating, Namelessnumberheadman have proven there’s no need to prophesize, only to spit forth a singular, unheralded statement. This is the sound of virtues getting their own say, without the awkwardness of metacommunity alignment; if only Frankeneheimer had understood this notion and kept his eyes on his own schoolwork. . .

Reviewed by: Derek Miller
Reviewed on: 2004-05-14 - Stylus Magazine


Discography

2007 - Wires Reply (Saint Ives)
2004 - Pauses, Ums, and Eyebrow Raises (self-released free EP)
2004 - Your Voice Repeating (The Record Machine)
2002 - when we leave, we will know where we've been (Urinine Records)
2000 - 100,000 subtle times (self-released)

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

People who've never been there might hear "Kansas City" and think Dorothy and Toto or, if somewhat more enlightened, jazz and barbecue. But there are more progressive things going on there than you might expect. In their own humble and low-key way, the Kansas City, Missouri-based trio Namelessnumberheadman have been blazing a trail that solidifies the invisible bridge between far-off galaxies and rural landscapes. They take heartfelt, melodic pop songs with a folk-ish acoustic tinge and swirl them into futuristic, electronic soundscapes. Their songs are both ear-pleasing and exploratory; you can hum along and feel like you've been transported somewhere new. As critic Scott Wilson aptly put it in a recent Magnet review, "if the group called Iceland home, it would end up on the cover of The Wire."

Named after a character in Steven Soderbergh's film Schizopolis, the group has an anything-goes approach that allows ample room for surprise. Sometimes the best way to go somewhere new is to do whatever you want and see where it takes you. Yet their music also has a down-to-earth quality, as if they're your best friends or next-door neighbors. Their lyrics tackle real-life longings in an ambiguous way that leaves room for interpretation. Introspection and mystery meet in the lyrics and the music, as do emotion and innovation. They hit you in the heart while lifting you off into space.

Andrew Sallee, Chuck Whittington, and Jason Lewis have been known as Namelessnumberheadman since the year 2000, though they've known each other since high school and two of them made music together back then. They made their name in Kansas City through an action-packed live show which blew away even casual observers and a $5, 6-song CD (100,000 Subtle Times) that those observers took home and obsessed over. Playing at a variety of venues around KC, with some of the city's best acts, the group soon received praise from writers at the local newsweekly, Pitch Weekly, which in 2002 named the group "Best Electronic/DJ/Dance" act. The fact that they play with traveling indie-rock groups and local rock acts yet can be classified as "electronic" is a testament to the way they're combined disparate sounds into one unclassifiable musical animal.

Their live shows start with Andrew on drums, Chuck playing both guitar and keyboards, and Jason playing keyboards and other devices, but they're likely to switch instruments mid-song, managing to create more sounds than three people should be able to. While 100,000 Subtle Times was an impressive introduction to the group's sound, their local reputation was solidified with the release of their first full-length, When We Leave, We Will Know Where We've Been, released in 2002 on local Urinine Records. That album amplified everything they do; it was bigger, more layered, more ambitious and more beautiful. It was praised by local press and even slipped onto the Village Voice Pazz & Jopp Poll due to the unabashed love of it by a couple of critics. And it's an easy album to love. Rich textures and loads of atmosphere meet sharply crafted songs. The sonic confidence that album exudes seems like a stepping stone to great, magical things. Namelessnumberheadman is still very much a Kansas City band -- they're played only a handful of shows outside of the area -- yet it's only a matter of time before their name is known everywhere. – Dave Heaton