Alvin Band – Mantis Preying

[Intelligent Noise; 2009]

Alvin Band (né Rick Alvin Schaier) doesn’t try to disguise how heavily he cribs from Animal Collective and its disciples. From the vocal layering to the tribal percussion down to the general experimental spirit, Alvin Band’s Mantis Preying blends right in with the Yeasayers and El Guinchoes of the world.

Hidden in this aesthetic conformity, though, is Alvin Band’s deceiving austerity. While other bands of this ilk mire themselves in obscure samples, instrumental exploration and otherworldly bleeps and bloops, Alvin Band takes the do-it-yourself to its logical extreme. In addition to self-recording and -producing Mantis Preying, you won’t find a single sound on the record that didn’t come out of Schaier’s body.

The a capella thing has certainly been done before and in more interesting ways than Schaier can offer (see: Bjork or Rundgren, Todd), though as just a kid with ProTools, he does deserve some credit.

The record is never as spartan as such a solo endeavor so often necessitates. Though short on instruments (and time, clocking in at only 23 minutes), Mantis Preying is long on ideas. Schaier piles on all sorts of melodic and percussive vocal gimmickry and gets an awful lot of mileage out of his 21-year-old larynx. At the very least, the album always sounds full.

Schaier borrows a lot from operatic ancestors like Brian Wilson and Freddie Mercury and does so successfully, even if he can’t avoid his forebears’ propensity toward exceptionally banal song conceits, like Hebrew school, playing pool and The Phantom of the Opera.

But lyrics aren’t what make Mantis Preying, and neither is the choral subterfuge. Schaier can only hide his sonic solitude for so long before his tricks lose their novelty. Luckily, the James Mercer-soundalike has a knack for melody that would be evident without all the games and contrivances of Mantis Preying.

Take for example Lady Portrait, Mantis Preying’s even shorter companion, a six-song bedroom recording that features, yes, some vocal overdubs but plenty of conventional instrumentation as well. Guitars and drums, even.

It’s just as catchy.

The key issue with Mantis Preying is that so much aural tomfoolery can largely obfuscate the songwriting that lies beneath it. As a result, the record too often seems like nothing more than a playful dalliance. Still, Mantis Preying offers nothing if not promise from the young songwriter, and even if he never finds a slick producer or, you know, an actual instrument, it’s an engagingly whimsical record that can stand on its own. Which is good, because that’s all there is.