If you follow the visual art of John Harrison, singer of Chapel Hill's North Elementary, you'll likely notice a motif: a grounded astronaut in a full space suit. Sometimes he's riding on horseback. Sometimes he sits in front of the TV. But in every instance his face is covered, leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether he looks with frustration toward the ground or stares with wonder at the heavens.
Southern Rescue Trails, the band's second LP in as many years, mirrors that conundrum. Striking an intriguing balance between David Bowie's space oddities and the nervy suburban angst of '90s bands like Superchunk and Pavement, North Elementary by turns yearns with awe toward boundless possibilities and bemoans the vexation of not fulfilling that potential.
Piling synthesizers that reverberate like laser beams on top of electric power chords that crackle and crunch like tires on an overpass, North Elementary creates an appropriate sound for this crisis.
Screeching in with a jumble of synthesizers that suggest Kubrick's 2001, opener "That's All for Everyone" starts as a widescreen epic before forceful guitar transforms its chorus into a battle cry. "I know you can feel how everything around us comes through for everyone," Harrison sings, his airy voice darkening into almost angry determination. Processed beats and a dark, sensuous bass line accompany Harrison when he's "deep in confusion" on "Sharp Ghost Mind," but "Southern Elevators" elevates his spirits with a full dose of childlike amazement via breezy banjo and violin.
It all sounds great, but the problem with dreams is that we only really care about the outcome of our own. Because of this, Harrison's more impressionistic lyrics fall flat. But at its best, Southern Rescue Trails smartly realizes that fantasy and failure are inseparable. In the end, Harrison's astronaut feels both. It just depends on what moment he's captured in.