Music » Record Review

I Was Totally Destroying It's Preludes

(Greyday Records; 2011)

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In hip-hop, rappers often issue rough-and-tumble mixtapes or short samplers to lead into the release of a proper album. Those tastes serve both as stopgaps and spark plugs meant to satisfy old fans and snag interest from new ones—a low-budget showcase of things to come. These tapes often take a foreshadowing title—The Road To..., Prelude for... or The Start of....

For that reason, and especially in a region like the Triangle where rappers recently tease more than tantalize, you're forgiven for assuming that Preludes, the latest from I Was Totally Destroying It, is a prologue to a proper album. You're sort of right, too: The heart-on-sleeves, melodies-on-chirp Chapel Hill pop quintet will release the full-length Vexations later this year. The material here was originally intended for a single or EP to push interest in that forthcoming album. But the band got interested in a batch of old songs frontman John Booker had once written, and steadily trimmed his 35 song ideas into this 10-song collection.

This isn't—sonically, at least—the emo-leaning, power pop-neighboring I Was Totally Destroying It that you've heard during the last five years. Sure, they still hang everything on a hook, but Preludes pushes the quintet's energetic punch into a batch of songs that tap a few different influences—Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Rainer Maria, Belle & Sebastian, Elvis Costello, maybe Blondie and definitely U2 (remember, IWTDI doubles as the tribute band IWTDU2).

The band has the chops to handle it. Veteran drummer James Hepler is the perfect timekeeper for a situation like this, using his experience to handle each look with precision and purpose. The dual guitars are interesting, too, ricocheting between motifs as much as they ricochet off each other. And what's best might be the keyboard playing of Rachel Hirsh—or, rather, the evolved ideas behind her keyboard playing. She rarely sticks to the track, instead adding flourishes and textures that don't quite fit the feeling, in the best ways. And her harmonies on closer "The Key & The Rose" push past those Edge guitars, galvanizing Booker's voice in a way that keeps him from being the prey of his own idolatry.

That's one of the causes behind Prelude's inescapable stiffness. You never get the sense that I Was Totally Destroying It is just playing music, that they're just writing and recording to, you know, write and record some tunes. The airtight playing and the flat-to-a-fault production sounds too much like a band trying to get something right, to master some things that they've heard along the way. Like those hip-hop mixtapes with the prescient titles, Preludes feels like a deliberate attempt not to make an explosive rock record but to expand demographics by showing that—beneath that poppy Hot Topic veneer—there's real-life indie credibility, with old U2 references, new wave nods and vocal affectations that shine back on the local indie lords, Eric Bachmann and Mac McCaughan.

And that's too bad, because these are good songs in the gloved hands of a more-than-capable band. Thing is, they seem to know that a little too much, as if they deserve the attention of the world. The unabashedly pompous one-sheet for Preludes ends with an ellipsis aiming toward fame, describing this album as "a prelude to something big, just on the horizon ..." Maybe that's right, and within the next year, I Was Totally Destroying It finally bounds through the song that makes them famous. Let's just hope it sounds like they're having fun.

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