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The Never | Antarctica | review | alternative | Lollipop
by Tim Den
Antarctica is proof that, even in the year 2006, there are bands operating below the "buzz/hype" radar, making independent music that's more creative, inventive, affectionate, and overall brilliant than anything that's being passed off as "hip." The Never are a quartet out of Chapel Hill, NC led by guitarist/vocalist Noah Smith and pianist/composer Ari Picker. The two have been friends and collaborators since childhood, and the results of their mutual understanding are absolutely astonishing on Antarctica. Picker's multi-instrumental arrangements - featuring organ, saw, samples, fiddle, mandolin, and more - not only compliment Smith's delightful pop-centric melodies perfectly, but are never overdone or inappropriate. The interplay between the instruments, voices, and beats resemble a futuristic, efficient superhighway where traffic always seem like its dancing. The swoops, dips, ascends, winding lines, etc. cut patterns around each other while functioning as accentuations for one another, dazzlingly mosaic (but not in an over-the-top way) in their fine craftsmanship. The fact that the songs end up somewhere between The Beach Boys and Ben Folds in witty catchiness is even more testament to this band's vision and execution. Classy structure and memorable, emotional songs, such a rare find these days.
And just when you think the merits of Antarctica end there, the band take it a step beyond: As well as being a concept album, Antarctica is a 50-page illustrated novel featuring art, layout, and story provided by Smith (who went to art college). A child finds a bomb in the backyard of his country home, decides to return it to the city where it came from, and fights through an evil witch, her minions, and inner turmoil on his journey. Though my copy of the record didn't come with the storybook, it didn't take more than two listens to the songs to realize how fully fleshed out the plot is. As the bio states, Antarctica is a sprawling project that, although humungous when all the facets are combined, can be separated into individual elements without losing potency. If you only listen to the music, read the lyrics, or browse the book, none of the tale's impact is lost. As the songs speak of the boy's courage, disillusion, hopefulness, and eventual fatigue in beautifully restrained, poetic, deceptively simple phrases that belie their wealth, it becomes apparent that The Never not only write better songs than most of their peers, they try harder at sculpting a vision, too.
Some of the best music in the world has the power to humble you, make you feel like a kid discovering a favorite band for the first time. Antarctica not only does all of that, it also returns to listeners the innocent, naïve kind of bewilderment that a good bedtime story can bring. The only thing possibly harder than writing an intelligent, fulfilling album is capturing true wonder in an intelligent children's story. Unbelievably, The Never have accomplished both in one breadth. If you're not moved one way or another by Antarctica, you're not human.