Plus / Minus (+/-)
Let’s Build a Fire
ood science teaches us that in the face of an apparent contradiction, it is often best for the scientist to get back to the basics and re-check his or her assumptions before proceeding. Here’s a contradiction for ya: One of the better American rock albums of this year actually came out last year. The explanation: Japan has had their hands on Let’s Build a Fire, the third full-length from New York City’s +/-, since last December. It’s a puzzling way to handle the release considering +/-‘s solid constituency over here. The only plausible explanations could be arcane business/legal troubles or a significantly larger audience in Japan—or perhaps the band was concerned about releasing an album that differs significantly from their earlier work.
It’s not like Let’s Build a Fire is a wild change from the band’s two previous albums. If anything, it’s a reduction of the chaotic noise and heavily-layered effects of You Are Here. The dizzying melodramatics of the band’s previous work has been redacted, leaving behind a comparatively straight-forward rock record. Sure, there are remnants of the back-catalogue hanging around, as with the chugging, hyperactive drum-machine on “Steal the Blueprints,” but the band has pretty clearly departed from their effects-laden past.
The revelation offered by Let’s Build a Fire is that +/- doesn’t really need any of that shit to sound effectively, er, plus/minus-y. Part of the reason is that the band has refined its complex rhythms that embellished previous standouts like “She’s Got Your Eyes.” “Fadeout” and “One Day You’ll Be There” receive the most immediately engaging of these beats, though the drumming on the album is similarly imaginative across the board. The guitar work fittingly complements the rhythm section, carrying a strong percussive element throughout.
The metronomic “chunk chunk-chunk” of the guitar and percussion help keep a listener’s attention, but they really serve to support the keen, dramatic dynamics and pervasive melodies that run rampant all over the record. The opener “Let’s Build a Fire” begins with a faux 30s radio sample, with muted brass playing a wistful bluesy swing, but after a minute and a half it’s bursting with big, introspective rock and decidedly 21st century lyrical stylings (“Maybe it’s better if I stop focusing / On all of the problems that reignite the fear”). The following track “Fadeout” is a slow riser, all strumming and rimshots until four minutes in, when the big cymbals and distortion rushes the gates for about thirty seconds, then fades back into strumming.
It seems almost clinically self-aware for +/- to refine their sound so easily, but it’s probably the sign of germinated experience. Any half-assed studio art hack teaching at a middle school in Hoboken can tell you that Picasso mastered realism before he became a cubist, and that Michelangelo not only drew realistic body contours, but could eyeball a geometrically perfect circle. In the course of showing the basic strength of their art, +/- are proving more and more that their work is consistent no matter the apparent contradictions.