Wide Open Spaces

Mandarin proves it's not where you're going, but how you get there

Wortham challenges Leer's assertion that playing in front of one interested person is better than a roomful of bored ones. Leer spends the next five minutes trying to justify his statement.

"It sucks to play in front of five people, but if they're really into it, that's better than just a scene thing, where people aren't really there for the music," Leer says. "We don't like playing bigger places and opening for a band where the audience isn't responsive."

On Driftline, Mandarin sounds like a band testing its own strength--not the strength to rock, but the reticence not to. "The Ignition," the album's first track, starts off with guitars that sound like muted brass, giving one the sense of sitting under a bridge listening to the hum of cars overhead. It's a nice introduction to a crop of varied material. This band would be perfectly at home on Chicago's Thrill Jockey label. "Pure Led" sounds like the shortest Jim O'Rourke song never recorded with its simple acoustic approach. "Waterborne" and "Scribb" sound like Nassau-era The Sea and Cake, with sweet simple hooks and Wortham's uncanny vocal resemblance to Sam Prekop. "Ignorance and Forgiveness" is steady and slow until the band finally amps up and forces the sound to the top, much the way Bedhead did on its final album, Transaction de Novo.

Still, it's not until track five, "Even Ghosts Wear Shadows," that the music erupts into distortion and sizzles with energy, much the way the now-defunct Comet once did. Even so, the noise is in check, the band never abandoning form. "Ghosts" demonstrates their strong melodic sense. Even through the climax of distortion and snare, the guitars seem to be dueling out the melody. This is not accidental, but rather a technique Mandarin has been perfecting since its conception.

"It's a real challenge to learn when not to play," guitarist Peter Salisbury says. "I've had to learn to just sit down and not play anything. You have to think about what would work better."

"It's about keeping the song under control," Leer explains. "There's noise, and there's unarticulated noise. Noise can be a good thing."

Mandarin knows when to play loud and hard but mostly chooses not to. This approach leaves room for the truly beautiful songs like "Pressing Butterflies," a foreboding modern folk tale about a grandfather's hobby--its dual nature being both pitiless and alluring. "Pressing butterflies is such a cruel thing/But in motion there is so much beauty never to be seen," sings Wortham knowingly.

From the outside, it's interesting to witness the interaction of these five diverse personalities. They all stand out as distinct, but somehow manage to cooperate when it comes to playing together. They emphasize that all were friends first and still hang out together more often than they practice.

"Sometimes I think our friendship keeps us from progressing," Salisbury says, laughing. "We get together and start drinking beer and laughing and not practicing at all."

"We practice together by not practicing together," Leer jokes, as he explains Mandarin's songwriting method. "We work on parts separately. We don't always work together."

"In the practice room we have this alter ego band where, when we really don't feel like working on it, we start getting out of control," Douglas says.

Upon listening to Driftline, it's hard to imagine the alter ego Mandarin: the punk rock, freewheeling band that apparently emerges in the practice room. Still Leer is quick to emphasize that Mandarin "ain't no jam band." Good thing. Texas needs bands like Mandarin to lift the stale impression southern stereotypes leave on listeners. Even if its name is Chinese.

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