This is Our City: Dualist – Taken by Cars (Review)

Dualist (album cover)

Friday – April 15, 2011. As the urban Metro restlessly sizzled about at the brink of the weekend, I was with a bunch of friends and acquaintances at the Amber Ultra Lounge. This is the place, I thought to myself as I took in the sight of a dimly-lit chamber, beneath a chandelier of disco balls and mirror shards. The band set-up was sitting lazily, playing coy to every soul. But that fooled nobody. The hushed anticipation pervading the subdued chatter and spaces between strangers ran thicker upon each momentaneous locking of eyes or fugitive glances upon the spot of performance. Soon enough, opening act Flying Ipis takes the stage. People flock to the band, myself included. I feel the new record in my hand, still in the slightest denial of finally possessing it. With the rites having been commenced, the night of Dualist begins.

Dualist (2011)

Party Bear Records

1| This is Our City

The band’s first single, and it doesn’t take much to figure this out. After a longitudinal absence, Taken by Cars transition us from Endings of a New Kind. But there’s something you can’t quite put your finger on, like meeting a friend you hadn’t seen in ages. You realize that he’s matured into a finer, more polished version of himself. Their manipulation of the melodic minor chord progression, with Sarah’s nonchalantly intimate vocals, reels you in. At 2:15, a bare synthesizer is the sole element in the mix, a potential cause for breath-holding in either awe or anticipation. This is Our City casts a panoramic-cinematic scene of the Dualist landscape. Taken by Cars are back.

2| Unidentified

Arguably the most playful affair in Dualist, it features a persona’s tipsy episode on the dance floor, her eyes locked on the evening’s prize–a stranger. The clever lines “Don’t think I’m asking I’ll tell you my name/Trial and error makes for sinful confession” lend flashes of genius beneath the musical tease. Guitars keep the melody on the verses afloat with blips and lilts. Think the guitars of Minus the Bear on This ain’t a Surfing Movie in shorter, more controlled bursts. Ending at 2:51 minutes, it’s short but sweet.

3| 34

I dare go as far as to say that Sarah’s melodic slurs bring to mind Jeff Buckley at his most intimate and sensual. Kong gives us a piece of his mind by breaking from his bass-snare-hi hat timekeeping and hammers out his brand of an interlude at 1:22. He also does vocals for the first time in the record. I wouldn’t know if out-of-tune was the goal here because a few more vocal takes could’ve helped. Buckled with a textbook Taken by Cars chorus, we find the band dabbling with a new sonic palette – you can sense tentativeness, but they pull it off nevertheless.

4| Quarter to Three

I had thought that there was nothing special about this song upon my first listen. After going through it a number of times again however, I realize that this is the bit in the album that doesn’t try too hard. Straightforward in arrangement and form, the band knows when to shift gears. The academic scrutiny of Shakespearean literature (yes, I’m going there) reveals the foil character. The foil character holds nondescript traits or those contrasting the protagonist’s, such that when the former and the latter are placed next to each other, the traits of the protagonist stand out. In context, the unassuming guitar work with the bass-drum undercurrent (the foils) dig a wide crater, creating ample space for the vocals (the protagonist) and brilliant poetry to shine through. I acknowledge the silent ingenuity.

5| Matter of Fact

I’m in love with the lyrical concept, but will have to say that its execution felt short of my constructed vision. Supposedly answering to each other from left to right, I could hardly make out the words coming from the left-ear. Overly obscured by the, well, obscuring effect, it felt like listening to blobs in word form. It may border on nitpicking, but I assert its significance in this kind of a song. Sure, I got the words down from the lyrics on the album sleeve, but I wish I didn’t need to. Also, be sure to catch the All for a Tuesday reference. It’s hard to miss.

6| Considerate

A bass-drum tandem opens the number with a synth pad filling the spaces shortly after. We find ourselves basking in the unfailing intimacy and tenderness of Sarah’s voice in her endless prayer for a lover. Bryce comes in at 3:00 with a solo that furthers my assertion regarding the band’s new palette of sound.

7| Autopilot

Autopilot raises the volume and picks up speed with their signature danceable-rock sensibilities. The drums and bass are placed to the fore in the mix, which is understandable, given that this one’s beat-oriented. I’d have loved hearing more of those biting guitar riffs, though.

8| Thrones: Indifference

A synth arpeggio affixed by a guitar’s crisp delay opens Indifference. Upfront, I find the synthesized bass quite awkward, but I’ll let it slide. Whatever Taken by Cars fail to gain in breadth musically, they make up for in depth and intensity. The guitars demand your attention. It isn’t an arrangement as much as it is a form of architecture. “I wanna believe/In death we will rise again” – when you hear such lines, you’d expect a complementary musical boost – which is given, bass-wise and drums-wise. Another layer of a guitar doing power chords in distortion could have driven the point further home.

9| Thrones: Equals

Arguably the best track of the album. A nod to Maserati trickles in for a build-up which shatters like a wave smashing into the shore. After Sarah chants the mantra “You should not have come here,” the fragments of the wave swell into a new atmosphere. Encompassing in scope and rich in texture, I attribute this segment to Coldplay and nothing lessInevitably, the song catapults into its momentum. Taken by Cars fire the big guns with bravado – condescending lyrics, apathetic vocals, explosive drumming, and sharp guitars. Equals attains the zenith that Indifference aspires for.

10| Intermission

A descendant of Stereolove, it utilizes an electronic beat, among other things. Sarah’s no-nonsense melody attests to her maturity as an arranger and singer. The song steadily mounts to its climax, melding electronic with rock.

11| Sea Bass

The concluding track features drummer Bryan Kong on vocals. Objectively speaking, I can tell that he tends to strain or run short of breath when it comes to sustained notes. Practicing musical breathing and support should help him sing much more comfortably. Lyrically, listeners are left with the enigmatic “As we lie/Reasons fly, in this never ending-haze.” In that light, I’ll lean towards passing it as an appropriate album ender.

Dualist dwells, denies, forgets, yearns and attacks in one go – much like the aggravated self. It tells of a psyche felled by its own humanity. The album evokes the dark cities within, setting human frailty in high definition. In sum, Taken by Cars have raised the bar. If Endings of a New Kind bagged critical acclaim, Dualist waves the reasons behind the acclaim like a red flag. This record took three years to make and it was worth the wait. If you’re looking for quality music, look no further.

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