Review of the Week: A + P

“Meta” music has its place, particularly for Harvard-educated musicians. When bands write songs about songwriting, or about themselves, they can draw on an insider’s view of musicianship that, ideally, would make for original, interesting art.

But there are two problems with self-referentiality: for one, because of its essential solipsism, it’s often funnier for the small circle of people on the inside than for the listener. Also, music that simply revolves around itself risks having no point but self-indulgence. Which is bad.

A + P’s recent album—self-titled, unsurprisingly—frequently staggers under the weight of tautology, though occasionally recovering long enough to create a few songs that can stand alone. Its opening track “Williamsburg,” for example, is full of lyrics like, “Tell me all the bands that sound like other bands / that we kinda sound like,” or “It’s a Brazilian psychedelic, pop-post-avant-garde garage punk ambient core outfit.”

The intentional overstuffing of lines works the first few times, but these moments of excess and exuberance could stay much sharper and fresher if only A + P would show more restraint in their quantity and delivery of them. When vocalist Alan J. Wilkis ’04 is deadpan, his lyrics shine all the more for the unglossed quality of his voice.

Of course, as two fledgling rockers straight out of Harvard, Wilkis and drummer Pete Kennedy ’03 have every reason to be self-conscious. They ask us to share all their passionate twentysomething angst, then quickly revert to some wry goofiness and slapstick machismo to assure us, and themselves, that they really don’t give that much of a damn.

This approach reaches grotesque proportions in “America,” which features Wilkis squealing lines like “Ooh, God, I love to eat / wash it down with a cold one and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s,” all done to an unrelenting instrumental thud. “I am responsible for who I am and what I am,” he screeches. Oh, I see, now I get it—you’re mocking American mass consumerism, right?

This salvo of stale doughnuts and Big Macs wrapped in anti-materialist satire brings the album to a cringing standstill, especially coming right after the delicately melancholy “Thoughts for the Unknowingly Bored.” “Thoughts” is appealing in its quiet simplicity, though even in the context of a mournful ballad, A + P manages to get bitten by the meta bug again: “The best band’s onstage, and you’ll never see them,” Wilkins sings wistfully.

As a rule, A + P are at their best when they choose control over effect and subtlety over staginess. In the last two songs, “While You Were Asleep” and “duPatios (epic),” Wilkis’ voice never strains or shouts and the lyrics never try for punch lines or catchy hooks, but both songs achieve a foggy dreaminess that begs another listen.

Belying the band’s Harvard roots, as an album A + P feels like an application supplement. Wilkis and Kennedy are clearly eager to show their range, from silly to bleak, up-tempo to slow jam, distortion-heavy to crystal clear. They can do three-chord blues (“The Optimist”). They can play with time signatures (“little gigi”). They can be quasi-political (“America”). The rookie nature of the album is further evinced by its acoustics; lamentably, you can often hear just how small their recording room was, sometimes to the point of triggering minor aural claustrophobia.

Taken for what it is, though—a band trying to find itself—A + P shows enough moments of promise that I sincerely hope they get another crack at it. If Wilkins can find a way to unite clarity, specificity, and immediacy in his lyrics—usually one is present; rarely all three—and if Wilkins and Kennedy can accept that volume and shock are not always synonymous with impact, A + P can develop a sound good enough to transcend self-reference.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars