13 Nov 2014

Album Review: Carsick Cars "3"

Reviewed by Kent Whirlow

There's been a vibrant indie-rock scene building in China for some years now, primarily in Beijing and Shanghai, but also with some talented bands from other areas. One of the most popular outfits, and for very good reason, is Carsick Cars from Beijing. Formed in 2005, they've become both very influential to, and well-respected by their peers.

They've released three records to date and this is their most recent, their third, the aptly-titled "3". It is the first record with the third line-up of the three-piece band, the only consistent member being bandleader, guitarist, and vocalist Zhang Shouwang (sometimes also translated as Shou Wang.) On this record, he is joined by He Fan on bass and Houzi on drums.

Released in February of 2014, this has resonated with me and grown to become one of my favorite records of this year. The Western influence is unmistakable; that the band has an affinity for Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth is quite obvious, but these guys are not simply churning out some second-rate copycat material. They have managed to create a very original sound. "3" was recorded in New York City, and interestingly, co-produced by Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 and Hamish Kilgour of The Clean.

The vocals are a mix of English and Chinese. While this may not appeal to all listeners, I quite enjoy it. As I don't speak or understand Mandarin, it adds an element of mystery to the whole listening experience.

"Wild Grass" kicks off the album and wastes no time getting down to business. The bass lines are infectious, the drumming is intricate and the guitar work is excellent. These are three talented musicians, but what stands out is how well the musicians play off of one another. A very casual listen may mislead one to think this is just average indie rock, but that is certainly not the case.

"The Best VPN So Far", with its unusual title, starts to reveal a more experimental side of the band. Fortunately, these are not standard verse/chorus/verse songs; the band takes the listener on a rewarding adventure with many pleasant surprises along the way. One of the things that makes this record stand out is that it stands up to repeated listenings; I have not tired of it after several months of repeated play. The guitarist really has a knack for capturing feedback and channeling it into something beautiful and powerful. He's a fine player.

"15 Minutes Older", sung in English here, is one of the more accessible tracks. It brought a smile to my face when my four-year-old daughter starting singing along "No More!" to it in the car the other day. It's a catchy tune. Here's a great clip of it being played "live in the studio".

"Reaching The Light" starts off with a jagged beginning and launches into a melodic piece and you can really hear how tight the playing is between the members. There are some great effects pedals in use here. Each song is unique, yet the band clearly has a sound all of their own and the songs fit very well together.

"Wei Cheng" is a good example of how the drumming never gets boring. The drummer is doing a lot more than simply keeping time; he makes a significant contribution to the texture of the sound. Also evident are some nice harmony vocals. They really display a mastery of varying tempos throughout the songs, which keeps things interesting.

Also sung in English, "Midnight Driver" features some strong fuzz-guitar with a rich, thick sound. One thing that I really love about this record is how well it is mixed. Unlike so many records where the bass is simply lost, it really stands out in each song and the sound is all the better for that.

"Shelter Song" is more gentle track, sung in Mandarin, and while I admittedly have no idea what words are actually being sung, the delivery of emotions arrives intact. "Could You Be There" slowly builds momentum then breaks into an energetic song, with some inventive playing.

Also somewhat on the experimental side, "512" builds excitement with a galloping beat, and before long the listener is awash in a wild, though carefully calculated guitar freakout. Listening to this really makes me want to have the opportunity to see this band live someday.

Perhaps more than any other song on the record, "She Will Wait" proudly showcases the Velvet Underground influence. Clocking in at just under six minutes, the length of this song is just right; it really wouldn't have the same feeling had it been shortened.

The final track on the album, "White Song", begins with an interesting loop and I can't help but think of the opening to The Who's "Baba O'Riley" when I hear it. Of course, this is very different, but it recalls the way that Pete Townshend had cleverly programmed his famous synthesizer where it sounds repetitive on the surface, but gradually evolves and becomes increasingly complex as it progresses. Distorted vocals bleed in along with guitar, followed by thundering drums and things become increasingly intense. By the time the song ends, it is hard to believe that almost seven minutes have just passed.

The CD contains two bonus tracks, separated by three tracks of silence. First, there is another version of "15 Minutes Older", this time sung in Mandarin, and it is quite interesting to hear it in comparison to the earlier English version. The second bonus track is a longer version of "Wei Cheng".

It is a cracking good record and I'm happy to have it on my shortlist of 2014 favorites.

It was released in China on the independent Chinese label Maybe Mars, and Tenzenmen in Australia and is available via Bandcamp, Tenzenmen, and Far Out Distant Sounds.