Twee Surgery

Following folly and fantasy with pop maestros Masters of the Hemisphere

Textbook contrarians Masters of the Hemisphere, yet another ubiquitous Athens, Georgia, poppy guitar band, regularly delve into the absurd. Look no further than the name, which far more befits an apocalyptic road-warrior assemblage of WWF retirees, when in reality, the band musters less of a threat than a muffled sneeze. Then there's the little matter of the band's sophomore release, I Am Not a Freemdoom, a nonsensical concept album peddled with an equally inane comic book. Freeing logic from its prison, Masters of the Hemisphere abolish creative hamstrings.

That's the Dada way of looking at the band. The other explanation, interjects singer/multi-instrumentalist Sean Rawls, is that the bandmates are all goofballs.

"We just want to have fun," he says sleepily. "And 'Masters of the Hemisphere' just sounds ridiculous. If I have to tell my girlfriend's parents what the name of my band is, I feel pretty embarrassed."

Lesson learned: no more concept albums for Masters of the Hemisphere, woof-woof
Lesson learned: no more concept albums for Masters of the Hemisphere, woof-woof

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The bombastic name is one thing. That the band deploys its infectious oddball tactics within the framework of some of the friendliest hook-laden pop songs ever is yet another mystery.

Army brats who spent the ninth grade together only to drift apart and reunite in college in Athens, Rawls and his friend Brendan Mead amassed a catalog of literally hundreds of songs before they turned 20.

"When Bren and I first started recording songs in high school, it sounded pretty much the same as it does now, just underdeveloped," reminisces Rawls. Back then, the pair worshiped Hüsker Dü and Superchunk. "But the stuff we were recording was really light-sounding," he adds. "Wimpy, I guess, would be a good term for it. We just always made up stuff like that." With the addition of ex-Mendoza Line drummer Jeffrey Griggs and eventually Adrian Finch (who swaps his bass for keyboards, guitar, or anything else handy), the group had everything it needed but a name.

Having to decide quickly, the boys whipped out the Masters moniker to the dismay of their bosses at the Kindercore label, who called it stupid. "That encouraged us to keep it," Rawls adds, predictably.

The two then chose the best handful of tunes they'd penned from as far back as age 15 and created a scaled-down Whitman's sampler as their snappy self-titled 1999 debut, a half-hour mini-epic about Navy pilots, falling stars, maps, Canadian streets, picture shows, and saucy foreign lasses.

Masters of the Hemisphere juggles handclaps, jiggling tambourine, joyously cavorting organ riffs, yummy-nummy strummy-strums, and Rawls's and Mead's intertwined boyish voices. But the duo does not share a collaborative relationship per se: "We try to write together," Rawls relates, "but it doesn't work."

2000's I Am Not a Freemdoom sported just as much, if not more, colorful tunefulness as its predecessor but was greeted with bewilderment or outright hostility from fans and critics alike. The album did appear to be the product of perhaps too much bowl-smoking: The difficult-to-follow "concept" centers around an evil dog controlling an underwater empire, "with the worst lyrics this side of a Wesley Willis acid trip," sniped one writer. After taking a cursory look at the comic-book storyboard, even Kindercore initially balked.

"We thought it was so funny that they hated it so much," laughs Rawls. "Not even we knew what it was even about," he insists, explaining that he would draw a panel and pass it along to Mead, who'd add another and pass it along to Finch. "There was no discussion whatever about plot lines or how it was going to end. We became more and more obsessed with it, just to annoy them or something. We made the comic book -- and then we made the album about the comic book."

Freemdoom could almost pass as a veiled political or environmental cautionary narrative. "Well, there's that subtext," admits Rawls, "and there's personal subtext. A lot of people take it a lot more serious than we do. We thought of it as a joke, something funny, and it ended up being annoying to a lot of people."

In contrast to his sunny disposition on MOTH's recordings, Rawls sounds vaguely unsettled when responding to the fallout from Freemdoom. "I can understand if people don't like that album, but I don't really care," he says grouchily. "Whatever. It was obvious that wasn't going to be for everybody. I like it, so I guess that's what matters."

Protest a Dark Anniversary, the band's third and newest effort, bids a warm populist welcome, as its leadoff track, "Anything, Anything," suggests. Far more immediate and inviting than its predecessors, Protest is full of pleasurable production techniques, sharp, witty songwriting, and a grab bag of horns and strings.

"See, that's a problem," nitpicks Rawls. "On some songs, we get ahead of ourselves and have, like, eight peoples' worth of instruments." That overreaching makes more work for Finch, who regularly mans cello, violin, glockenspiel, and saxophone. "Take Time" and "All Your Winning Numbers" are more complicated than their jangly hooks would indicate, while sun-kissed guitar licks levitate the middle of "Local Government," a song Rawls assures has nothing to do with the album's title (which references a Czech uprising).

"There's no concept or anything for this album. What's it about? I don't know," he finally decides. "No idea."

Someone get this man a fur-lined teacup.

 
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