Finding an Easy Oddity: Ragaman, “And Other Anagrams” Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 22 March 2012 06:31

Ragaman

My first listens to And Other Anagrams, the full-length debut of the Quad Cities trio Ragaman, brought to mind something Andrew Bird said to me in a 2007 interview: “I don’t know what a bass line is supposed to do.” The context was finding collaborators who didn’t play “stock footage,” who fight pop formulas in the creation of pop music.

Bird and Ragaman share an endearing softness and a natural aversion to subjugating intelligence, and both seem constitutionally incapable of conventional approaches, from instrumentation to style to structure. Ragaman employs the sitar as the lead on “Everyone You Know,” for example, and it’s the perfect essential detail: Taking the traditional rock role of the electric guitar, the instrument is comfortable yet foreign, and its chattiness anchors the song. The break of “Ankle Bells” features what sound like kazoos and trumpets – although I suspect some of that is mouth-mimicry.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Lars Rehnberg, bassist/engineer Gordon Pickering, and percussionist Leif Rehnberg make up Ragaman – an anagram of “anagram,” a joke referenced in the album’s title. Their style is a pop stew with distinct flavors – jazz, funk, and world music intermingle and take turns dominating. But it’s unified enough by its ambition, its breezy texture, and the vocals and playing of Lars Rehnberg – a former co-worker at the River Cities’ Reader.

The charms of each song are different. Opening track “Verisimilitude” starts with classical-style guitar that blooms into something tropical, and the singing soars transcendently. (At other points on the album, however, the vocals seem nearly trapped by the words.) The bass, electric, and acoustic guitars of “Just a Minute” are separately purposeful and expressive.

The conversational lyrics on “I Do” adroitly switch gears – the dialogue is initially internal but then addresses a lost lover – and Lars Rehnberg nails the tone while navigating a minefield of tricky lines: “She gently asked me ‘Why, why do you love her’ / I’m giggling, thinking something like ‘Why do you breathe?’” The closing instrumental “Crux” is a solo classical-guitar composition that serves as a digestif.

But despite its varied styles, the album as a whole feels homogeneous. The songs are largely leisurely and gentle, and while that works for the individual tracks, the mood wears thin after a while.

When Ragaman tries to mix things up, the results are ... well, mixed. “Go Go Go” tries to rock out with jarring percussion and distorted guitar, but it’s strained.

And as a singer, Lars Rehnberg here doesn’t muster enough dynamic range – even in songs that require it. On “Go Go Go,” the casually mild vocals simply don’t match the aggression of the music or the sometimes-sharp wordplay: “His tongue is a hot straight razor / His stomach is a pot of coffee.” On “I Do,” the force of the words “God damn” doesn’t register in the singing.

That seems symptomatic of a larger ill. While the compositions and instrumental performances are rigorous and keen, collectively they lean toward somnolence. Often, And Other Anagrams seems to be missing something ineffable – an energy or conviction or drive.

I wouldn’t trade the band’s mellowness and delicacy, but the last two minutes of “Palace of Pele” show how all those elements can work together. The song to that point is mostly distinguished by the ska stroke, but it takes a U-turn at the four-minute mark. The tempo accelerates, Lars Rehnberg sings in Hawaiian – with punctuating “Hey!”s – and the climax is (relatively) frenetic. It’s a lively, emotional passage that marries the band’s inherent warmth and sparkling technique with heart and verve.

“Soluna” also points in that direction, with its strong guitar hook, yearning electric cello (by Sam Rae), a notably darker vibe, and its building and collapsing tension. Like the best of Andrew Bird, it finds an easy oddity – instantly winning and enchanting, and only weird on reflection.

Ragaman will perform a CD-release show on Saturday, March 24, at the Redstone Room (129 Main Street in Davenport). Sam Rae opens, and the show starts at 9 p.m. Admission is $5.


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