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Cerberus Shoal
The Land We All Believe In
Northeast Indie

Now 11 years and 11 albums into their career, Cerberus Shoal have honed a ramshackle, rhythmic and highly theatrical style, combining junkyard cadences with angelic vocals, precocious juvenile instruments with scathing political commentary. How much you enjoy this Maine-based collective depends, in large part, on how far you're willing to go into their world. For instance: at a concert last year, during one song a female bandmember went from listener to listener, touching each and every one of them lightly with a feather duster. Whether this strikes you as ridiculous or profoundly moving depends on how wholly you've suspended disbelief — and an open mind, indeed a willingness to be transported, are critical to appreciating The Land We All Believe In as well.

Cerberus Shoal recorded their latest with Scott Coburn of Sun City Girls, and The Land We All Believe In shares that band's fascination with multiethnic jams and long percussion-driven intervals. The wavering flute at the onset of "Taking Out the Enemy" could have come right off SCG's Flute and Mask, though it disappears, rather quickly, into a cakewalking banjo and swing-blowing saxophone. And like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, the band draws a fine, very crossable line between music and theater, nightmarish atmosphere lifting, occasionally, for off-kilter, high-kicking choruses. The singers — even the instruments — feel like characters in a play, mugging exaggeratedly through their parts so that they can be enjoyed in the back rows. This works most of the time, though the cartoonish spoken-word outro to "Taking Out the Enemy" is a little grating.

The disc begins with the title track's hallucinogenically sweet chorus, Colleen Kinsella and Erin Davidson's voices locked tight in harmonies over a plinked background of percussive sounds. It's a tipsily euphoric convert's chorus, strange and compelling and slightly foreboding. You can imagine it as a loosely strung lemur's march over heaven knows what cliffs to the sea. It is followed by one of the album's highlights, the clattering, nonsense-lyric'd "Wyrm," which wends its freak-embracing way over 11 and a half minutes. Like circus music played in an unknown key, it is both celebratory and disturbing, and the fact that you can almost, but not quite, make out the words adds another layer of disorientation.

Like many of the longer cuts, "Wyrm" has several movements. The exuberant noisiness of the first section melts into an interlude of melancholy accordion and half-heard moans and field recordings. This builds slowly in intensity and volume, cresting in a roar of static, then dying down to musette-ish wheezes. Then Chris Sutherland picks up the vocals again, spewing out a machine gun's report of percussive imaginary words; he sounds Cajun, then Spanish, French, then East European, absolutely eluding translation but wringing a great deal of urgency out of the sounds.

Cerberus Shoal's focus on transformative experiences, rather than songs per se, comes through in the longer tracks, four of them over 10 minutes long. "The Ghosts Are Greedy," teeters on a scaffolding of clanking tin-pan drumming and unbalanced bass, a foundation rickety enough to tremble under the spooky art-rock vocals but also steady enough to carry the band for nearly 16 minutes. The even longer "Taking Out the Enemy," percolates along on that hallmark jaunty rhythm for eons, flaring into a triumphant chorus of "Here I am/ Here I am" every few minutes.

Lyrics here are politically pointed but surreal — like Sutherland's made-up "Wyrm" rant, somehow conveying rebellion and communal utopianism without actually saying the words. Still, there's a closed quality to these tracks, a feeling that you almost have to join the cult to participate, that the audience is never as important as the band itself. If you're not in the right mood, the high buzzing vocals in "Pie for President" sound like Chipmunks, or Queen circa "Bohemian Rhapsody." Chaotic, theatrical, stuffed to the gills with ideas, and exuberantly alive, The Land We All Believe In rewards the faithful and punishes the skeptical. One person's transcendent is another person's silly, and where you stand, what kind of day you've had and how willing you are to let go will mostly determine how much you like this record.

by Jennifer Kelly

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