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Posted on February 2nd, 2011 (5:03 pm) by Peter Schauf

Exray’s, the self-titled and latest endeavor of the disturbingly ambitious Jon Bernson is the perfect soundtrack to that movie where Ray pines after the head turning Mary Hollow only to be snubbed and utterly ignored in the end and ultimately turns to heroin to feel something/nothing. No wait, it actually turns out that this Mary Hollow is just a sublime apparition of the heroin. Get it, because she’s hollow? Or something. Okay, you caught me, there’s no such movie. The point is, Bernson’s music has a certain intangible theatricality about it. Some of it is storytelling, some of it is in the artful minimalist complexity, and some of it I really just can’t find the words for. All of this I decided even before Wikipedia “confirmed” (more sources needed) that I was on to something. As a founding member of his label, Howells Transmitter, Bernson has released material as Ray’s Vast Basement, Window Twins, and plays a part at least in most of the other acts. For this collective, music is just the tip of the iceberg…which is good since Exray’s tunes by themselves are rather unimpressive.

I was unaware of Jon Bernson before this album, but from what I gather, it’s rather impossible to judge him or his label mates without experiencing a live performance. But it isn’t as though they’re putting on plays at shows. Ray’s Vast Basement is essentially a three piece making what one might describe as experimental music, although I wouldn’t call it that exactly. While Bernson certainly has an adventurous pioneering flare, his efforts are more calculated than “experimental” implies. It seems to me that, as varied as his efforts are, his art is very deliberate. Like when Arcade Fire used magazine-ripping as percussion while playing in an elevator for a live performance, Ray’s Vast Basement’s collusive musicality is no mere coincidence.

I guess the case is sometimes people are just “too creative” for only one outlet, or in this case I think it’s more like Bernson playing a new part. Whether you love, hate or are unaware of Ray’s Vast Basement’s Starvation Under Orange Trees, you have to appreciate this period piece inspired by Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The music itself feels somehow familiar and forgotten but in a distinctly different way than any past experience. Even if you can’t appreciate it, it is clear that this was the artistic pinnacle for Ray’s Vast Basement. Would I have been happy if Wilco had stopped making music after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? God no, I would have been horrified. But now that it’s 2011, I think most of us are ready to admit that we didn’t really need Wilco (The Album: aka The Ghost is Dead) or Sky Blue Sky. So I’ll give Bernson the benefit of the doubt.

Even to myself, my opinion of Exray’s needs a lot of justification. If “Mary Hollow” doesn’t easily make my forthcoming Best of 2011 compilation, then I am really excited about this year in music. But aside from that track, I really don’t have much praise or debase. It’s all just pretty blah, really (which is where the whole heroin thing comes in, unless I have some great misconception of heroin). “Mary Hollow” sets the bar impossibly high, but I don’t dislike the sound of the album in the slightest. Take the grooving bass line of the opener “You Forgot” substantiated with handclaps, a charred-out guitar riff and clanging percussion. It’s glorious. But as the track “Hesitation” demonstrates, Exray’s just can’t seem to sink their teeth into that elusive groove. The middle two minutes of the track is fantastic, but it’s bookended by four minutes of frustration. “Forest of Sand” grooves possibly hardest of all with a riff so thick that it’s about as hard to get through as well…you know. There’s potential galore, and promise buried in every track. I really want to love this album, but I just can’t. Noise rock is a dangerous genre. The line between annoying and genius really just isn’t that fine, and most who attempt it fall somewhere on that line. The good news is I would rather hear another Exray’s album than Ray’s Vast Basement. That’s a plus, right?

Track List:

1. You Forgot
2. Mary Hollow
3. Make a Prediction
4. Hesitation
5. Discolandia
6. Stolen Postcard Sun
7. Remember Nothing
8. Forest of Sand
9. La Palma
10. Enemy
11. When I Was You
12. Exray’s Spectacle

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Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

66 / 100
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