Album Review: Mountains – Centralia

[Thrill Jockey; 2013]

Oh, consistency. King of the backhanded compliment, especially in a realm as esoteric and acerbic as indie-rock music criticism. To call a band consistent can be worse than damning praise; it can be a death knell. Too often, consistency is critic-speak for ‘boring’, ‘predictable’, ‘bland’, and without innovation. Having lost its edge.

What must it be like, then, to be a band like Mountains. Several albums deep into your career, you aren’t going to set anyone’s world on fire with your new and intriguing take on the concepts of sound and genre, and you aren’t likely to get anyone listening that isn’t already on board. So do you stay the course, plodding on with the music that interests you, and critics be damned? Or do you risk reinventing yourself entirely in hopes of inspiring attention anew, while possibly alienating fans that count on said consistency? The hunt for the elusive classic album is done, that sun has set on an empty playing field, the players heading to the aisles, jingling their car keys. Is consistency a virtue for the patient, a reward in and of itself when compared with the often streaky and unpredictable careers of so many bands?

Mountains make what I’d call ‘pleasant’ music, which itself sounds like backhanded praise to the nth degree. Still, in truth, there’s as little wrong with ‘pleasant’ as there is with ‘consistency’. Trying something new can often be a frightening, jarring experience, as any disgruntled veteran of an ill-advised threesome or an intriguing new drug might tell you. When you want unpredictable, there are plenty of bands willing to surprise you. When you know what to expect, like slipping into a comfortable old hoodie you haven’t gotten around to donating to Goodwill yet, you want bands like Hammock and Mountains. You know those guys will never shake things up on you, will never strike off in unexpected and unwanted new directions, leaving you cold and reaching for the security blanket of their back catalogue.

The fact is, we need bands like Mountains and their pleasant ambient/glitch wallpaper music. Not everyone can be Magic Johnson, some bands have to be Kurt Rambis or AC Green to carry the flashy Magic to the championships. There’s much beauty to be found here on the fifth Mountains LP, Centralia. The unfolding synth blossoms of “Sand,” the gentle acoustic pastoral folk of “Identical Ship,” the darker swells of “Living Lens”. By the time we reach the epic shoegaze-fuzz denouement of the twenty-minute “Propeller”, its been another fine episode of ‘At Home With Mountains,’ and you find yourself sighing in soothed contentment.

I suppose there was a possibility at some point for more than just a collection of songs here. The curious title of Centralia suggests the notorious abandoned mining town in Pennsylvania, home to caved-in streets and yards resulting in mass evacuation as a result of an almost comical perpetually-burning underground fire. But Mountains don’t seem the grand concept album type. That shoe may fit well on other bands, but on these dudes it would only prove clumsy and poorly-worn.

Still, Centralia is an achingly beautiful album, as one would gladly expect from Mountains by now. And that may be the hallmark of a truly accomplished band, where consistent means not ‘boring’ but ‘rewarding and engaging’. Instead of being unsure what happens next and wincing when we first hit play, we nod and smile. You, again.