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The Ants "Ideabreaker"

RELEASE DATE: June 10, 2007

Chad Bryan and his band of merrymakers in The Ants have to date made three full-length albums and with each effort, the group has come closer to solidifying its vision of subversive, literary rock 'n' roll. But it's the outfit's latest effort, Ideabreaker that fully capitalizes on the promise that's been evident all along.

Ideabreaker is a difficult record. Not difficult in the sense that free jazz and the most bloated progressive rock are difficult, but difficult in the sense that the works of writers such as John Fante and Nelson Algren are. Ideabreaker 's songs are filled with an empathy for the common man but the common man who has been rendered invisible by a popular culture that champions the artlessness of King of Queens and The Lovely Bones but eschews the high art of Hemingway and Ginsberg. In Bryan 's world, America has a whole lot more in common with the tragic America of Mike Judge's Idiocracy than the heroic, always-right America of The Marine .

The songs are smart but not really smart-assed, subversive without being cloyingly ironic, gently serrated but never overtly acerbic. In an era where lyrical subtly and sophistication have become relics of a bygone era or become the terrain of folkies and art rock acts, their presence in each of the multi-faceted pieces here is a welcome return.

Equally important is the group's decision to forge a unique sound, one that's not married to conventions of contemporary underground rock. You won't find much in the way of shifty, atonal freak-outs here, nor will you find neo-disco passages or pallid homages to rock's past. Whatever the quartet — Bryan , co-founder and bassist Brad Nichols, keyboardist Dave Randall and drummer Sean McEniry — owes to previous acts is subtle. At times, Bryan's vocal style — to say nothing of his lyrical guitar work — calls to mind Jerry Garcia and he and his band mates meld such a broad section of American music that the Grateful Dead, The Band and The Doors must have played at least some minor role in the group's development. But there are also hints of Pavement's oblique pop plus a wink and a nod to the acid-laced gospel of the Meat Puppets and the wholly unorthodox ideas of the Minutemen.

If the apparent incongruity of these influences elevates the pitter-patter of your heart to thunderous, Bonham-esque beats, fear not, dear reader. There's a tunefulness here and a sense of familiarity. The opening “Bootheel” glides along like a San Francisco breeze, replete with easy charms which recall the AM radio pop of the late '60s as well as the studio-rat glory of Steely Dan. “Spindle” imagines what might have happened had Jimi Hendrix spent a little time soaking up rays deep in the heart of Dixie with a band of country pickers; “The Donkey Talking About Long Ears” is cocktail jazz as envisioned through the singular minds of D. Boon and Mike Watt.

OK, you're probably scared. And, honestly, maybe you should be after all. This is a world where the familiar refrain of “It's the most wonderful time of the year” opens a three-minute sojourn that slashes speakers and juxtaposes the ordinarily soothing with the always unsettling. And no matter the dissident intentions behind “Jesus,” it's through and through a beautiful song; Eric Mardis' turn on pedal steel highlights the inherent grace of the melody and the less obvious beauty of the vocals without rendering it sentimental; but the progression of the verses — the familiarity of the opening lines “Jesus is not just another song in the setlist/if you waver, he'll be your metronome” is later usurped by “Protection from religion? That's protection I can get into” and the final assertion, on the part of Bryan , that “you can't teach two books as one”) — suggests that sentimentality is the very last thing he and his bandmates would ever strive for.

It's certainly not sentimentality that's alive in “Statues,” in which we're greeted by “I'm standing at the front of the slaughterhouse kill line/first kill of the morning and I'm feeling fine” over a section of horns bopping and shoo-whopping us into a bizarre tale of bloody murder.

Bryan's finally utterance, “Get fucked up on that shit/get high,” feels not so much like the invocation of escapism but the words of a man who can't deal with the day-to-day ennui of being a slave to capitalism but instead an ultimately limpid battle cry against the machine to which he is knowingly and unwillingly chained.

It's possible that those tendencies mean that The Ants will largely exist as a band for intellectuals.

Ideabreaker 's as short on simplistic hooks as it is on easy answers. It's a hard record to access even you're tuned in to the heavy questions it posits about existence in these modern times.

But good or bad, for better or worse, this is the kingdom of The Ants and entry into it means having a deeply-rooted faith in the fact that whatever divine force is at work in this twistedly absurd universe has one wicked sense of humor.

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