We'll try to explain why the Bloomington band Memory Map took three years to follow up on its brilliant debut album, but please bear with us, because it involves Japan, Mormons and an Internet celebrity cat.
"It took a little bit of time, but I think that's a good thing," frontman Mike Dixon says. "Sort of like having a waiting period before you're allowed to buy a gun."
The new product – The Sky As Well As Space, just out on the buzzworthy local label Joyful Noise – blasts the same melodic exuberance and ear-tickling three-guitar attack as its predecessor.
Same lineup, too, all B-town music veterans: Mike Bridavsky and Matt Tobey on those busy lead guitars, the inventive Josh Morrow on drums, and Dixon on a MIDI-rigged guitar that lets him pick with his fingers on the high end while using the lower strings to thumb bass lines through a separate amplifier. All four sing and shout together, with lead vocals handled by Dixon in an earnest bray that recalls the Beach Boys' Mike Love.
This time around, however, Memory Map developed a deliberative, in-studio composing process that opened up broader territory in terms of dynamics, texture and structure. Home-state fans can experience the results when the band plays Friday at the Joyful Noise space in Fountain Square and Saturday at The Bishop in Bloomington, wrapping up a two-week tour that included an East Coast run opening for ANTI-Records artists Saintseneca in New York, D.C., Boston, Philly and Pittsburgh.
The new album almost didn't happen.
When the self-released Holiday Band was picked up by Joyful Noise in 2011, Memory Map toured for a few weeks, seeded a cult following and began working on new material. But then the logistics got more complicated. Dixon finished grad school and landed a gig teaching Japanese at Brigham Young University. (For kicks, the band also recorded an EP with Japanese lyrics.)
"We had started recording the new record before I left for Utah," Dixon says. "The idea was that I would still have time to work on it. Then things kind of took off with Mike and his cat."
Yes, Mike and his cat. You've surely seen Lil BUB, whose genetic anomalies made her permanently tiny and adorable and an international sensation (and NUVO cover star) after some photos went viral in late 2011. Bridavsky and his friends built a profitable and philanthropic cottage industry that includes a book, a web video series and an online store selling BUB-branded apparel, plush toys, calendars, buttons and other accessories. There have been cable TV specials and a documentary film. Another book is in the works.
Even now, being BUB's caretaker is "more than a full-time job," Bridavsky says. He oversees sales, keeps fresh photos and videos online, fields a couple news interviews per week, and every month or so escorts his kitty to a public appearance, often to benefit animal-related charities.
As 2012 continued, then, Memory Map's future dimmed. But then, with echoes of Spinal Tap, they were beckoned from the Land of the Rising Sun.
"We were about to break up, honestly," Bridavsky says. "September of 2012 is when we were asked to go to Japan for the first time, and that's really what brought us back together."
It seems the staff and customers of a record store in Japan had fallen in love with the Holiday Band album and invited the American quartet over for some well-received shows, no doubt enhanced by the frontman's ability to speak the native tongue.
Here's the crazy part:
"The Japanese connection had nothing to do with Dixon speaking Japanese or that we had already made a record in Japanese," Bridavsky says. "When we told them we had an EP in Japanese, they were like, 'What? This is insane!'"
Reinvigorated, the band got back to work at Bloomington's Russian Recording, a respected studio conveniently owned and operated by Bridavsky, who has engineered and mixed both Memory Map albums.
The newer songs on The Sky As Well As Space originated with Dixon and his knack for unpredictable chord changes. When in town, he and Morrow would record basic tracks upon which Bridavsky and Tobey could ruminate for a while and then layer their guitars in harmony and counterpoint, striving to avoid collisions.
"The first record was all written as a band, with all of us playing really loud, and you can tell, Matt and I, our parts are so wildly different, and I think they step on each other more often than they do on the new record," Bridavsky says. "On this record, we wrote [guitar parts] together a lot more."
To develop the vocal lines, the band would gather at the studio and offer critiques as Dixon spouted melodies on the fly, starting with nonsense syllables that later evolved into actual English.
"We come from a history of 'tutti frutti, au-rutti,' or whatever, so it doesn't really matter," Dixon says. "It's OK to just rock. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' – nobody's really picking that apart."
The rhythms on the 12-song album are often unconventional but never alienating. Keyboards, most notably piano and mellotron string sounds, appear in frequent supporting and occasional lead roles. Acoustic guitars provide contrast to the juicy electric tones. The result is a headphone-friendly blend of punk-pop energy and prog-rock complexity that transcends easy categorization, especially that "M" word.
"We get lumped into the whole 'math rock' thing, and it drives me crazy," Bridavsky says. "To me, math rock is trying to be difficult on purpose."
Dixon agrees, "Structurally, what we're doing is pretty pop."
To that end, opening track "The Celebrated Summer" sets the stage well for what's to come. Odd time shifts and crazy twin-guitar lines explode at the service of engaging melodies and buoyant group vocals.
Other standouts include "Magnetic Center," which somehow builds a head-bobbing groove in 5/4 time and also brings some lyrical metaphysics to the party.
Joyful Noise, in its typical way, is offering the album in various specialty vinyl editions, which means there are two sides for those listeners. Side 1 ends with the instrumental "Antelope Glue," a brief interlude of guitar and synthesized strings that borrows its musical theme from the album closer, "Antelope Earth." For digital listeners, it's a great setup for the Side 2 opener, "Superhuman Child," perhaps the album's weirdest and best cut.
"Isolation Is Ours" delivers the epic wallop of a six-minute Radiohead suite in just 2:26, without even changing its stately tempo. And the aforementioned closing song ends the package on a surprisingly meditative note with piano, acoustic guitar and no drums.
So what's next for Memory Map? Hard to say. Everyone's excited about the possibilities but also busy with other musical and non-musical projects. It's worth noting that the new album was released in January by a Japanese label, with the EP songs included as bonus tracks.
"If the record does well, you can never tell – I've never had a record do well before," Bridavsky says. "We'll definitely go back to Japan, we know that."
[Music] DJs + Dancing
[Music] DJs + Dancing
[Music] DJs + Dancing
[Music] DJs + Dancing