The official press packet accompanying The Wedding, the new LP from Brooklyn-based experimental rock band Oneida, states that the melodies to most of the songs were generated by a "hand-cranked behemoth" of a music box, built by the band members themselves. We're meant to believe that it's "the largest music box on the east coast of the United States." The story is that Oneida assembled its contraption from plywood, salvaged marine pilings, motor parts and more than 70 saw blades. They tinkered around with the thing, cranked it up and took note of the sounds that came out.
This preposterous story is, of course, a bunch of crap. The music box never existed. None of this ever happened. But it's a joke that only a band like Oneida -- a band wrapped up in the trappings and self-conscious aesthetics of avant-rock -- could make. It's funny at first, because hey, those hipster rock bands are just so silly, right? But then it's not funny anymore, because you realize that, had Oneida actually conducted some sort of modern art experiment in rock 'n' roll chaos theory with, say, a giant music box, they likely would have been taken just as seriously. And those of us who don't care to stoop to the level of indie rock inside jokes (Oneida's keyboardist "Fat Bobby," for instance, is actually tall and thin as a rail -- ha ha ha!) could do without such affronts.
That aside, this is nothing short of a brilliant album, musically. The band's roots are in psychedelic rock, but The Wedding departs from the up-tempo punk-noise experiments of last year's estimable Secret Wars and explores slower tempos, complex part-writing and stoner-rock meditations.
The plodding "Heavenly Choir," grounded by buzz-saw guitar drones from multi-instrumentalist "Hanoi Jane" and long cymbal crescendos from drummer "Kid Millions," draws its listener into a hypnotic world of sharp edges and distortion. The cardiac pulse of "Leaves" and the brain-scan sound effects on "The Beginning is Nigh" have similar effects, building layered climaxes that make the act of listening to The Wedding one of involvement and engagement, only without the listener having to actually concentrate.
What's even more pleasing is the work of Brian Coughlin, director of the New York-based new music ensemble Fireworks, who composed string parts for six of The Wedding's 13 tracks. The slow falsetto vocals and guitar strides of "You're Drifting" get tangled up in a string quintet that could have been lifted from a Bartí²k chamber suite, with dissonances shifting over a strong melodic center and a rhythmic, tolling bass. And the relatively straight-ahead, jig-time cello parts of album-opener "The Eiger," a peculiar love note from a Swiss mountaineer to a "pretty little German girl," seem evocative of something you can't put your finger on -- a Bavarian ballooning song, perhaps, or maybe just Oneida's weird sense of humor.
These guys are not art snobs -- a fact confirmed by the intensively focused repetition of "Lavender," a clear return to their mathy punk roots. But Oneida works with the intensity and fastidiousness of starving artists. From start to finish, The Wedding feels like a labor of love: Each burst of noise has been manicured, and each of Hanoi Jane's tortured yelps seem to come straight from the gut. It's the kind of thing that can only come from dedication and good detail work. And here is the other, much more subtle joke: It's the kind of stuff that never could have come from the random guts of a homemade music box.