I’ve been racking my brain to try and understand why North Carolinian psychedelic progsters US Christmas (I’ve also seen it as U.S. Christmas, with punctuation, but on the album it’s without and I prefer it that way anyhow) have such a buzz around them. Musically, the six-piece don’t really do anything that’s never been done before, adding some Appalachian ruggedness to the well-established tropes of modern psych and post-rock, but I don’t think they satisfy in either their meandering structures or most spacious moments any need that acts like Naam, Quest for Fire, Farflung, Sula Bassana, and a dozen others don’t already fulfill. Seriously, I’ve been through and through US Christmas’ fifth album, Run Thick in the Night (Neurot), and the only reason I can come up with for why US Christmas has received all this hype and these other bands haven’t is because Scott Kelly likes them. Apparently that makes all the difference in the world.
Not that I wouldn’t also seek to curry favor from the venerable Neurosis guitarist and vocalist for a musical project, and not that this is anything to be held against US Christmas in terms of their sound or the quality of Run Thick in the Night as both a whole album and collection of songs, but clearly these things matter. Since Neurot released US Christmas’ Eat the Low Dogs in 2008, I feel like a shitload of people have grasped onto the band in a big way as torchbearers for modern space-driven psychedelia, and don’t get me wrong, Run Thick in the Night has its moments — at 76 minutes long, there’d better be a couple in there — and the band has ironed out some of its kitchen-sink approach (lineup changes are also a factor), but in terms of crafting memorable songs, US Christmas seem to take more of a part-construction point of view, making tracks that flow well enough but don’t necessarily stay with you after listening.
Further, there are times on Run Thick in the Night (the drum/effects-only “The Quena” comes to mind) where it feels like US Christmas have no editorial voice whatsoever. It’s like they were in the jam room and every idea that every one of the six members of the band came up with got used, and for every instance like the gorgeously achieved build of “Deep Green,” there’s a counterpart “Fonta Flora” that feels misdirected and redundant. As vocalist, guitarist Nate Hall affects a kind of half-speed Eddie Glass throughout much of the material, but he leaves plenty of room for the instruments to build the atmosphere, which they do with extra drums and percussion from B.J. Graves and Justin Whitlow (Tony Wyioming of Minsk also guests on percussion), synth also from Whitlow and Matt Johnson (also therein and guitar), guitar from Chris Thomas, underrepresented bass from Josh Holt and Meghan Mulhearn’s violin. Mulhearn adds vocals to “Ephraim in the Stars,” and that’s good for changing up the sound, but with an album closer to 80 minutes long than not and basically one approach throughout all the material, it’s hard for it to not be repetitive. Maybe that’s what they were going for, I don’t know. It works in some spots and doesn’t in others, where it undercuts the (one could argue overly-) romanticized rural vibe of the tracks.
They open with their longest cut, “In the Night,” and I’ll certainly give points for that, but as regards much of Run Thick in the Night, I’m still scratching my head. For sections like the brief instrumental “The Leonids,” I feel completely immersed in US Christmas’ sound, and whatever flavor their Kool-Aid is, I’m ready to drink it, and then at other times, I’m lost, distracted and, frankly, bored. Of course, with Sanford Parker’s production, the sound of Run Thick in the Night is clear and crisp and full of the depth one would expect, but even that can’t fix the situation when the material that comprises the album is uneven. I want to like this band, and I’ve tried more times than I care to admit to hear what it us Mr. Kelly might hear in their sound, but I keep going back to the same phrase when it comes to US Christmas, and that phrase is, “Congratulations to me; I just don’t fucking get it.”
So there you go.
Tags: Marion, Neurot, North Carolina, US Christmas