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Princeton's Seaside Conceits 

A Westside band tackles the old-fashioned "concept" album of art-rock's fruity past

Wednesday, Dec 24 2008
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The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.

—John Maynard Keynes

click to enlarge Crafting broad narratives out of melodies and words
  • Crafting broad narratives out of melodies and words

 

Yes, quite. But then, Princeton, that local trio of shrewd young pop theorists, is by no means just another school of showy prats with literary pretensions as big as their heads. While it is true that they have issued a lushly orchestrated four-song EP called Bloomsbury — in reference to the well-known (no?) Bloomsbury Group of English literature — Princeton have done it in a smashing, artful way that drips with clever cribs of classic British, French and Brazilian pop sonorities, and as an excellent byproduct have shown how the old-fashioned “concept” album of art-rock’s fruity past can be used to plow and fertilize heretofore unthinkable musical fields.

The band features twin brothers Jesse and Matt Kivel and their boyhood friend Ben Usen, who met as wee first-graders in merry old Santa Monica. They started playing music together in high school, then met up in London, where all three were doing university. Usen was studying business, Jesse, philosophy and English, and Matt, economics.

What do philosophy majors do after graduation? Do they just hang up their shingle and wait for customers in need of belief-system tune-ups to drop in and chat? In Jesse’s case, graduating from college meant that this was a goodish time to immerse himself in music, if only to get it out of his system, as any self-respecting rationalist/empiricist would do.

Princeton named themselves after not the prestigious university but the street they once lived on — though in so doing, they were obviously testing and nudging us a little, especially in light of the release of said Bloomsbury concept EP.

Chief among the EP’s pleasures is the way Princeton seem to encourage their listeners to slow down ... and spend quality time with the music, far more than they would normally be asked to do.

“That was the point of this EP,” Jesse says. “It was important to make the literary conceit mean something. The music almost took a secondary to the concept — not to say the music was bad but that the concept was what sparked the record.”

The band had two songs when they started, written about two people in the Bloomsbury Group, though without a concept in mind; they were sitting around, wondering what sorts of songs they should follow up with in order to make a full record. It was decided that since they worked slowly, perhaps they should make an EP.

Matt had this song Jesse liked, and he talked him into twisting it into a song about the Bloomsbury Group. “Eminent Victorians” features tightly curled electric-guitar strum-and-snare thwack amid one very small organ sound and a lot of lovely chimes; harpsichords stroll sunnily, chamber strings tumble from the elms. These so-tasteful, smallish bits all work in true harmony, and one has to savor the blessed lyricism, where melody — not bass and drums — is at the forefront.

Still, the idea of doing an EP — albeit a mere 13-minute one — based on Victorian literary types seems a bit ... far-fetched. Like this song, “Leonard Woolf,” for example. Listen to it: An exceedingly pleasant little thing with guitarlike strums but no guitars, and a melody that towers above, it traverses some no man’s land between Brit Invasion (heavy on Village Green–era Kinks) and more floaty, flowery Brit Invasion suggesting Chad & Jeremy’s Of Cabbages and Kings. The nimblest varieties of tempo, rhythm and tonal palette make for a rare type of pop pleasantism, which skirts the saccharine by deft dint of Pro Tools–aided orchestration. (The EP was recorded and produced by the band, with mixing by Pete Weiss.)

Leonard Woolf was Virginia’s husband, a gifted writer who didn’t mind playing second banana to his more famous wife; as the band puts it to Leonard, “Don’t cry, your books will one day speak to me/And when they do we’ll run outside/and tell your wife ... and tell your wife ...”

“When I wrote the song,” Jesse says, “I was, like, ‘Sorry, Leonard, that sucks you’re not as popular as Virginia Woolf.’ But he didn’t care.”

It is indeed very nice to imagine that Leonard gave not a toss.

“I thought,” Jesse adds, “who cares what you write about in songs, anyway? It doesn’t have to be limited to something that’s true.”

While Princeton plan to release more themed EPs — their next will be a Krautrock-tinged opus detailing in three parts the life of a squid — the group’s forthcoming full-length, however, will not be a concept album.

“We have so many songs that we’ve been playing for a while, it’s just not practical,” Jesse notes. “I don’t want to bullshit the whole album into something it wasn’t.”

“I think there is a concept about the album, though,” Matt says. “It’s kind of indirect, nothing as specific as Bloomsbury. It’s gonna be a romantic album. Uh, in a literal sense – not like the Romantic period.”

Princeton performs with Bodies of Water and No Little Kindness at Spaceland on Saturday, Dec. 27.

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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