Just last year, Ryland Bouchard and his band Bedroom Heroes released an excellent little album called Sea Change. Roughly half a year later, Beck (not very far away in alphabetical terms) released an album by the same name (without much similar in terms of sound). On a completely unrelated note (I think), the Bedroom Heroes fell into a state of flux, and although their album can still be ordered from their label website, they also decided to make the entire album available as a download.
Lead man Bouchard wasn't about to stop there, though, and immediately got to work on a new musical project, in addition to running his own small studio. That project eventually bloomed into The Robot At Me, and it's leaps and bounds better. Changing direction a little bit, the group glides along into realms of experimental rock and pop, mixing programmed beats, guitars, horns, stringed instruments, and all kinds of other touches for a refreshing entry in the genre. At 17 tracks and almost an hour of music, ideas are developed and then it all moves in another direction, changing enough to keep it engaging, yet not letting itself get too haggard either.
The disc opens with backwards chimes and a perculating rhythm section before dropping off into a more midtempo feel on "Our Bones Were Chalk." The chimes are back in the mix, and they mingle with a quiet guitar and the vocals of Bouchard, which sound like they could crack at any time, giving the track a sort of off-kilter nursery rhyme feel (the track-titled line in particular will stick in most craws). "Tied To The Car" mixes buzzsaw bass and live and programmed beats with a jaunty little guitar line before the excellent album-titled track of "They Ate Themselves." Mixing dual keyboard swells over an old-school drum machine beat and accordian, it sounds like one of the best homages to Neutral Milk Hotel that I've heard yet (both lyrically and musically).
The album sags a touch around the middle section (the quiet keyboard and vocals of "You Smile" don't connect as well as the more full tracks, while the short instrumental of "What It Felt Like To Fall" doesn't really add anything), but that's sort of a minor quibble on an otherwise interesting album from a lesser-known group. Like the aforementioned vocals of Magnum, Bouchards vocals take a bit of time to get used to, as it many times sounds like he just woke up and is singing in a hazy, gravely tone. Still, during the quiet build of the amazing "Goodnight, I Almost Died," I couldn't imagine much of anything different, and by the time the red-line distorted drums hit at the end, everything falls into place. Slightly more stripped down than work by different Elephant 6 artists, this will no doubt appeal to certain fans of that collective, as well as those who can imagine a somewhat lo-fi Radiohead. Fun at times and introspective at others, the surreal lyricss seem to focus on death quite a bit for such music, but it's that juxtaposition that makes it work so well.