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Rock in a New Place 

Depending which generation you're from, the term "instrumental rock" carries different connotations. If you were born prior to say, 1970, then the no-vocals tag probably conjures up the rumble of Link Wray, or the surf-shred of Dick Dale or the Surfaris. But if you were born after 1980, then instrumental rock is a whole other ballgame, like the scalding aggression of Mogwai and the avant experimentalism of Tortoise. Sharpen Your Crutches, the new EP from New Orleans instrumental rock band Mexico 1910, is a reminder that categories go out the window when New Orleans factors into the equation.

Mexico 1910 rose from the ashes of the unfortunately named indie-pop band Turtle Search. Mexico 1910's members -- guitarists/bassists Brian Antonak, Miles Britton and Ashley Fain and drummer David Jeffries -- established one rule from the onset: The band would be an equal partnership on every level. Such an arrangement is admirable, but in Mexico 1910's case, there's been one drawback: these guys work really slowly.

"It took a year to write three new songs," says Britton. "There's no one person saying, 'Here's a song, you play this part.' It's a lot more feeling it out. Most other instrumental bands we'll listen to, they'll play a song for 15 minutes, but we try to keep it all interesting."

Sharpen Your Crutches boasts four songs (the three new compositions and a reworking of a track on the band's first demo) and clocks in just under 25 minutes. But it was worth the wait, as the EP is one of the most intriguing recent entries on the local rock scene. The lead-off track, "Sadly, We May Have to Count This One," sets an ever-shifting sonic template with a maze of different tones, tempo changes and unexpected twists. The multiple guitars weave in and out, with haunting, delicate melodies intertwined with short stabs of distortion and visceral riffs. One brief segment crackles like a short-circuiting airplane propeller. At times it sounds like early R.E.M. sans Michael Stipe, or a punkish lo-fi lost track from Jeff Beck's Blow by Blow-era work.

The title track follows and opens with some airy, haunting string bends, sounding like a dreamy, vaguely ominous soundscape from a science fiction movie. Then the rhythm section gets in some cathartic Crazy Horse-style bashing building to waves of crescendos, but just when the band sounds like it's going to go for the kill, the song's floating bass line becomes more prominent and the guitars briefly drop out, leaving the drums briefly out on a ledge. The band kicks back in for the coda, leaving a lasting impression of uneasy resolution.

"Magdalene" is another snapshot of darkness, with the distorted, industrial-tinged guitar lines threatening to crumble into sonic fission. But the song's mid-section unexpectedly morphs into a slurred drums-and-bass saunter, while the accompanying six-string work evokes some barren desert landscape.

"Six Billion Potential Messiahs" sounds the most like a college-rock track, with a squalling lead riff backed by sledgehammer drums. But sure enough -- and this is Mexico 1910's strong suit -- it immediately veers into different directions, riding a heavy Geezer Butler-like bass line. Delicately layered guitars ride over that bottom, with some country-flavored passages melting into moments resembling psychedelic James Burton riffs. That feeds into a feedback wash that barrels toward the song's conclusion, which is an unexpected complete halt.

Is there an audience in New Orleans for Mexico 1910? That's hard to predict, as the city's rock scene is a notoriously tough nut to crack. And in the grand scheme of things, four-song EPs usually don't make the kind of waves that a well-crafted full-length album can. Add in the fact that the band's four members all have day jobs (though they ultimately hope to make the band a full-time project) and their penchant for painstaking, time-consuming craftsmanship on their music, and sustaining momentum becomes a tricky feat. But the band is embarking on a short East Coast tour later this fall, which might open some doors.

Those kind of make-or-break factors in a band's success are unfortunately too often decided by odd twists of fate, so for now, Mexico 1910 deserves props for executing its unique artistic vision. And for whatever it's worth, Mexico 1910's aural soundscapes just might appeal to local fans who usually run for cover when they hear the "rock band" label. Close your eyes and imagine the band's compositions being played on acoustic instruments -- especially horns -- and you've got the makings of some engaging contemporary jazz. Whatever you want to call its sound, Mexico 1910 evokes a time and place well worth visiting.

Mexico 1910 plays an EP-release party for Sharpen Your Crutches on Friday, Aug. 29, at the Howlin' Wolf.
click to enlarge Mexico 1910's new EP, Sharpen Your - Crutches, is an intriguing entry on the local - rock scene.
  • Mexico 1910's new EP, Sharpen Your Crutches, is an intriguing entry on the local rock scene.


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