Go for baroque

Pub date March 26, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

In the southern suburb of Portland, Ore., where dwell the two main men behind the ornate folk-pop of Musée Mécanique, there’s an old amusement park with a Ferris wheel, carousel, and, perhaps most strikingly, a roller-skating arena with a pneumatic-powered Wurlitzer organ that drops down from the ceiling.

"The park has all sorts of stuff that was inspiring in terms of the instrumentation we used for our record," says singer-guitarist Micah Rabwin — who also plays the keys and singing saw — over the phone from Portland in reference to their yet-unreleased debut, The Wayward Orchestrion. These various old-time amusements weren’t merely an abstract point of inspiration, however, as he excitedly explains: "We used some found sounds that we recorded at the amusement park itself. The park’s in the record!"

It’s these kinds of rusty, creaky pleasures that chiefly inspire both Rabwin and fellow multi-instrumentalist Sean Ogilvie (keys, guitar, accordion, vocals), who borrow their band’s name from the now Fisherman’s Wharf–based museum they used to visit when they lived down here a few years ago.

"We love to make a song that has its own soul, just like the machines they have over there at the museum," Ogilvie says of their tunesmithery, the products of which could be likened to a delicate Joseph Cornell assemblage. The orchestrion of the album’s title is, according to Ogilvie, "like a drum machine," except it runs on air power through paper rolls, which gives it an incidental quality that — combined with its "wayward" state — suggested to them a "wandering piece of equipment walking around, gathering little interesting tidbits into itself."

It’s an image reminiscent of freewheeling Japanese video game Katamari Damacy, yet it accurately reflects their songwriting and recording process: obviously Rabwin and Ogilvie aren’t robots or magical stuff-accumuutf8g orbs, but in the process of recording, the two would gradually incorporate new and odd bits of instrumentation — pianos, organs, et al. — to flesh out the basic tunes that they workshopped together. Once the basic tracks were laid down in their cobbled-together home studio, Rabwin and Ogilvie brought in strings and recorded drum tracks to unite the various instrumental adornments at play, pairing in serendipitous fashion the old with the new: for instance, vocal harmonies and a Mellotron choir, a singing saw with a thereminlike synth effect, and acoustic and electric guitar.

As old-timey as the frontmen’s tastes might be, The Wayward Orchestrion feels deeply contemporary throughout — sincere in its fragility, and lustrous even as it’s shielded from the brightness of the sun. One of its most affecting tracks is "Somehow Bound," on which strings and xylophone plinks buoy a lovely, sad, pink parade float of a song along. "Fits & Starts," meanwhile, is a wistful stroll through a pedal-steel sunset, exemplifying the kind of huddled, intimate feeling characterizing much of the disc. With the help of a backing band, the live rendering of their musical snow globe takes on a more rock ‘n’ roll quality, even as it often entails playing two instruments at once for a few of the musicians.

This spring tour marks the group’s first significant eastward trip, and they seem pretty darn excited at the prospect of taking their collection of keyed instruments and found sounds out on the road. Musée Mécanique sound like they’re soundtracking the eventual re-opening of the market for hot air balloons, top hats, and groomed mustaches. They shine quiet wonder through an eerie, nostalgic lens of quivering saws and keyboards, all the while providing Sufjan Stevens with formidable competition in the "Best Baroque Folksters" category. (Michael Harkin)


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