United States of Belt
ome change is dropped in front of a microphone, a guitar strums one awkward note and the sizzling of pancakes in a frying pan fades in. This just has to be a concept album. Listening to United States of Belt brings two things to mind: Set Fire to Flames and Neil Young’s Greendale. It’s as though the very best aspects of the two (the ideas, not the execution) were combined and made twice as appealing, but not nearly as Canadian. No. There’s no doubt this is red, white and blue. Patriotic in the very best way, the way John Fahey and Loren Connors could paint a picture of Main Street so vivid you could smell that fresh apple pie, or blueberry pancakes, if you will.
Pancake Alley is a broad landscape painting—an audio film, the band says—of the all-American small town at its very best. Combining selected field recordings from several coast-to-coast voyages over a five-year period in real-time with live instrumentation (including some exceptional banjo work by Vic Rawlings) and live on-the-spot recordings (ping-pong anyone?), USOB had no shortage of material to set the scene. It’s fascinating to hear the combined sounds and wonder where each originated. Who is that voice on the loudspeaker? In what state did this the train cross this microphone? Was it in the desert? What about those wind chimes? The depth of the material can be overwhelming, but as with most overwhelming works of art, I eventually just stop analyzing and just absorb it.
The first of the album’s two tracks opens with an organ and some light conversation before giving way to a wash of electronics, some voices at what sounds like a sporting event, and some murky waters. “Hello? Hello, are you there echo?” chimes in as it will several times through out the album and then the most nasal rendition of our national anthem I’ve ever heard (Think 1928 and a guy with a megaphone) walks hand-in-hand with a fireworks display. There are a lot of fireworks in this fictional town. And on and on, the album goes for forty minutes, one intriguing glimpse of one-stop-light American towns after the next.
Thankfully United States of Belt understand the fine line they walk. Their “Those were the days” recollection never becomes the clichéd, rambling story you’ve heard so often—quite an accomplishment considering that fifteen people participated in the recording of the album. At no point does it even sound like more than three or four are playing. Mr. Ross Goldstein (co-founder of USOB and one of the recordings participants) magnificently keeps everything under control, obviously no small feat with the previously-mentioned ping-pong games and pancake making.
Listening to Pancake Alley I’m reminded of the odd collection of small towns in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia that I’ve spent a day in, driven through or visited friends and family in. Certainly none are perfect—some are downright scary—but if I cut and paste the best aspects of each, I can picture United States of Belt’s rackety little slice without even evoking Hollywood. For anyone who thinks modern experimental music has pushed itself too far into academia or esoteric noise, this album could single-handedly restore your faith. Beautiful, picturesque and full of emotion; Pancake Alley has almost everything that would win over a typical rock fan. Cue “Star-Spangled Banner”, fade to black.
Reviewed by: Mike Shiflet
Reviewed on: 2004-11-08