Okay, if you tuned in yesterday, you saw me tackle Shorthand Phonetics’ Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value. I said the songwriting was awesome but that the album was too long because the vocals were difficult. For those of you looking for the promised treat at the end of the last review, here it is: Shorthand Phonetics’ Score no. 1 “Dream:Chase” in A major, op. 17, for Three Electric Guitars, One Bass Guitar and One Drum Kit is an album that’s one-fourth the length of Errors and totally instrumental. Basically, everything good about Errors is here and none of the bad.
The rock that Ababil Ashari so aptly writes is displayed in unadorned splendor here. There’s no lyrics or vocals to get in the way; just pure songwriting. Ashari strays from his pop-rock idiom some and moves toward Explosions in the Sky post-rock, but it couldn’t be more pleasing. For the post-rockers in the room, standout track “Act II: Middle, c. Your Dexterity Modifier is Just Right / Captain’s Armband / Display of Badasstitude” is much closer to Unwed Sailor’s optimistic melodies than Explosions’ moody ones, but not enough people know of Unwed Sailor. There is an awkward rock solo at the end of the song that doesn’t fit, but for the most part, there are glorious melodies that fit perfectly in the context of the song throughout.
But, like Errors, there are some incredibly poignant quiet moments as well. “Act II: Middle, b. XP From a Sage Expy (Terrific Speech 3) / Ease In (Taking a Level in Badass)” is strikingly well-composed as a minimalist piece. The fact that it segues perfectly into the aforementioned instrumental rock track is awesome.
It’s worth note that the entire eighteen-minute album plays as one song; it’s also worth note that there are composition skills at work here that go beyond “I can write eighteen straight minutes of music!” There are musical themes that are advanced, repeated, modified and re-introduced. There is ebb and flow of mood and emotion. This is, simply put, a classical piece of music in the rock idiom (just as the far-too-clunky title espouses it to be).
The only thing that I can really compare this to is The Programme, a Tulsa band that died an early death after releasing the best instrumental rock concept album about time travel that I’ve ever heard. And that’s high praise, because the Programme has often sat in the “favorite band” seat in my head. There are still weird, idiosyncratic moments in this release (like the weird and annoying feedback of “Sad Panda Dies…”, although when considering the epic moment that comes after the feedback, it can be admitted), because it is a Shorthand Phonetics release. But this is easily the best Shorthand Phonetics release I’ve ever heard, because it plays to every one of their strengths and eliminates all of the weaknesses. This is epic, fantastic, inspiring music. If you like epic rock’n’roll, instrumental rock, pop-rock, or generally exciting music, you need to check out the epic Score no. 1 “Dream:Chase” in A major, op. 17, for Three Electric Guitars, One Bass Guitar and One Drum Kit.
My relationship with Shorthand Phonetics is somewhat complicated. That’s all right, though; almost all of Shorthand Phonetics’ lo-fi rock’n’roll proclaims the ins and outs of complicated relationships (or lack thereof).
See, Shorthand Phonetics always has and probably will always have an aesthetic that challenges listeners. Ababil Ashari, mastermind of Shorthand Phonetics, writes and plays with Jeff Mangum-esque disregard for other people’s conventions of what is good and not good. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece because it is a total, singular vision that no one else could possibly have put together. While Ashari’s works haven’t reached that level of mastery yet, each release of hyper-distorted, giddy, super-emotional, crazy-long-titled pop and rock’n’roll songs comes closer and closer to reaching perfect idiomatic success (perfect idiomatic success: in which it doesn’t really matter what everyone else is doing, because what the band is doing is so awesome. See also: The Format’s Dog Problems).
Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value is by far the most unique release that Shorthand Phonetics has revealed yet. From songs whose full titles are 50 words long to ten-minute songs to Firefly and anime references, this album is a distinct vision from Ababil Ashari’s mind. The whole low-to-mid-fi thing is over an hour long, as no song drops below four minutes in length. Several run for more than six minutes.
The length is the ultimate problem with Errors. It’s not the length of any particular track that does it in, but this much Shorthand Phonetics is hard to take in one sitting. The songwriting is consistently good, although a bit abrasively recorded. It’s the high, occasionally grating vocals that get in the way. For a few songs, the unique and exciting epic power-pop covers the problem. But tracks like “To the Girl I Think Might be Similar to the Girl Flight of the Conchords Were Thinking About When They Were Writing “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)”” just have grating, screechy vocal efforts that cannot be redeemed. It’s just too much to ask of listeners.
That being said, there are moments here that shine when pulled from the hour-plus context. “Fear and Loathing in Jikyoku-to” is one of the best songs that I’ve heard by SP (although I have by no means heard them all, as SP is quite prolific). Its riff and melodies are engaging, resulting in head-bobbing and much approval. That’s the primary thing that’s different about Errors: there’s a lot more headbobbing than rocking out. And that’s just fine, as tunes like “The Hardest Achievement” and “Fear and Loathing…” are excellent. The melodic solo intro to “Natalies for Glasses IV…” (which is the song with the fifty-word title that I’m not reproducing here) also is excellent, except for the untuned bass guitar in the back guitar (remember kids: lo-fi doesn’t have to mean sloppy).
To sum up this review: Ababil Ashari of Shorthand Phonetics is an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that’s hard to take in large doses. In 1998, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that was hard to take in large doses. Then he grew up some and became amazing. Not saying that’s the road that Shorthand Phonetics is going to take, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the next ten years produce some great stuff from Shorthand Phonetics. If you have a high tolerance for unusual vocals, then Errors is in your department. If you don’t, then tune in to tomorrow’s review, in which you will receive a treat.