Bound Stems : The Family Afloat

<img src="" alt=" " />On <em>The Family Afloat</em>, Bound Stems bring an exuberant energy to their over-stuffed ensemble of sound....
7.9 Flameshovel

 On The Family Afloat, Bound Stems bring an exuberant energy to their over-stuffed ensemble of sound. The Chicago-based act really pricked up ears with 2006’s Appreciation Night, and now with their sophomore full-length, the band seems even more together, despite their complexities.  If anything, the only problem with The Family Afloat is that Bound Stems almost don’t know when to stop throwing additional material into the mix.

The main way this flaw comes out on Family is through the band’s tendency to stop/start on tracks, not to mention slamming different styles together within a song (akin to Coldplay’s Viva la Vida Or Death and All His Friends – though not to that extreme).  But one can almost forgive them, given that each spice is so nice.  It also results in a quite varied record (and some tracks that are a step or two too long…).

Opener “Taking Tips From the Gallery Gang” is a mix of high atmosphere, uplifting pep, and a wry slant, but gets a little burdened by all the tempo changes.  Bound Stems are little less over-ambitious on follower “Happens To Us All Otherwise”, keeping the upbeat anthem to a rollicking home street fun, and the track is stronger for it.  The band continues to change things up on Family, with “Passing Bell” both sad and electric (though too long, at over five minutes), and “Palace Flophouse and Grill” even more mixed up.

But then comes the biggest change – followed by perhaps the least.  “Clear Water & Concrete” is a sad strum, with interesting backwards background effects, and comes as shock after the energy of the first half of Family.  The subsequent “Cloak of Blue Sky” is even better, restrained and pretty before expanding into the wide open – but the record might have been better served, were the tracks not right next to each other.

However, that did leave the back end of Family particularly strong.  Minute-thirty instrumental “Only Clementine Knows” (which features the clickety-clack of some old typewriter or telegraph) is an introduction to the record’s peak, “Winston”.  This song about, yes, the legendary British Prime Minister (and his wife Clementine…) is a true sad epic, as it goes from alt-country to sing-along to expanse and more.  It’s also perhaps the best employment of a million ideas on the record.  The distant, catchy upstroke of “Crossed Off Together” carries Family to electric finisher “Sugar City Magic”, which pulls off its extended length.

The Family Afloat is an apt title to the record, as Bound Stems feel like a ‘family project’ (reminiscent of fellow upper Midwesterners, Cloud Cult – QRO album review).  And a family can be a million things at once, going every which direction.  But when it comes together, The Family Afloat rises far above the waterline.

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