What I discovered amid scores of old (free!) demo tracks was a one-man minimalist synth punk machine that could be favorably compared with the likes of Atom and His Package and I Hate You When You’re Pregnant. But while Atom often focuses on slanted observances and personal recollections and IHYWYP plays performance art against ironic provocation, Math seems firmly rooted in making music that’s fun, accessible, and at times a little absurd.
The band that I discovered on stage at the Unlimited Enthusiasm Expo’s stopover at this summer’s Nerdapalooza was a variation on a theme: a three-person setup that transformed those bright, key-heavy numbers into a solid wall of rock ‘n’ roll aerobics. After getting my ass handily rocked off by the spectacle, I approached the trio to discuss the bewildering spectacle.
Apparently truthful flattery goes a long way with Math the Band, because I was treated to a free copy of their newest CD Banned the Math, which I’ll now explore in depth.
- "Hey Dude! (A Predule)"
Epic and sweeping, and maybe a little sinister, "Hey Dude!" starts the album on a note of classic misdirection. The sound of this intro track is (almost surely) intentionally misleading, but it’s such a perfect primer that the listener is halfway through the second song before realizing he’s been duped.
- "Let’s Hear it for Capitalism"
An amazingly smooth transition from the disparate lead-in track takes us into this fun, pulsing "merch song." Despite the fact that Kevin’s declaration that he doesn’t play instruments and doesn’t have much talent is a lie, this song is both lyrically and musically compelling. The synth lead is sharp and uplifting, and, as advertised, it makes you dance.
- "LEEEETTTSSS GGGOOOOOOOOO!!!"
Another silky transition and a well-layered intro, make up for the fact that "LEEEETTTSSS GGGOOOOOOOOO!!!" is a bit too similar to the preceding song. That being said, this is easily my favorite song about exercise. Ever. It skillfully alternates between breezy instrumentation and a good, old-fashioned group scream, lending a lot of power and energy to a song that’s less than two minutes in length.
- "Blue Skies and Blue Jeans"
"Blue Skies and Blue Jeans" changes the album’s tone a little, both musical and vocally. It stands out by being as low-key as Math gets (save one later instance). The fantastic instrumental breakdown around 1:10 mark gives this piece true depth, but the hooky, chirpy instrumentation and oddly touching lyrics will keep you interested along the way.
- "Wear Wolf Fever"
A full 360 degress from its predecessor, this song (which is one of my favorites from the old demos) could rightly be called a defining moment of the Math the Band sound. With its odd vocal timbre, layered refrain, frenetic music, and surreal lyrics, it’s a sub-two-minute-miracle that proves to be the acid test for determining who is and is not a fan of Math the Band.
- "My Algebra Teacher (Sold Heroin)"
Another perfectly smooth transition leads to fun galloping "bass" and warm synth lead of "My Algebra Teacher." This is the first of two album tracks that contains a reference to the "bottom of the ocean," which is either a clever lyrical motif or an oversight. The classic chiptune feel and predictably fun vocals make it a treat, but the glitchy instrumental outro is its genuine strength.
- "The Water Cycle"
This is another standout track that manages to make edutainment interesting, if not wholly accurate. (To my knowledge, motorcycles have little to do with the water cycle.) The musical refrain is used to punctuate the vocals to a particularly interesting affect, giving it an almost call-response style. And while it probably goes without saying, you really can’t go wrong with synthetic handclaps.
- "Everyone is Embarrassing"
Kevin introduced this track live at Nerdapalooza by stating that is was about "my sister who had lice and I love her." On all levels it's both earnest and laughable, and has proven another one of my personal favorites. It's also of note because it contains swearing. I like swearing. In the end, the lyric "nobody’s cool and I still love you" comes through as a candy-coated affirmation. It packs a lot of power for a song scarcely a minute and a half long.
- "Following All the Rules Is Not a Crime"
While the vocal delivery is totally unhinged, the musical backing of "Following All the Rules Is Not a Crime" is fairly subdued, which makes for a handsome contrast. The "chorus," as such, is almost touching. But mostly it's weird.
- "You Can’t Spell"
Another markedly brilliant song transition leads into what could be construed as the musical equivalent of Kevin losing his fucking mind. There are moments of lucidity, of course, but they merely punctuate the lyrical madness. Calling the project a "one-man band" may be a bit of an oversimplification with regard to the current project, but this is another great minute and a half of blissful chippyness.
- "Four Square or Square Ball"
"Four Square or Square Ball" is one of the few moments of the entire album that I find a bit lacking. The sound's simply a bit too compressed for my liking, although there's a great Super Mario World-esque breakdown mid-song that prevents me from skipping it. It also contains an inexplicable transition to "The Star Spangled Banner" in its waning measures. Yeah. At 3 minutes long, it simply serves to drive home the fact that I prefer my Math in short bursts of genius, as opposed to more lengthy musical meditations. Still, the final crisp snare hit leads perfectly into the following cover track.
- "Upside Down From Here"
An Atom and His Package cover wasn't exactly what I expected out of Banned the Math, but it certainly works. Boasting all the flavor of the original without quite as much camp, it actually shows a brand of restraint (both musically and vocally) from Math, which I’m opposed to in theory, but it works well in this instance.
- "The Alphabet Using Spellcheck"
Hal 9000 samples, spacey instrumentation, and faint screaming make this the most experimental track on an album that’s nothing but experiments. You'll find the song has burned through half its track time before it really kicks in, but it’s an enjoyable, upbeat ride that must be heard to be understood.
- "The Order of the Planets from the Sun"
Another little piece of edutainment, "The Order of the Planets from the Sun" features some almost whiny keys that make this an incredibly fun track. It could be easily compared to the likes of the recent kid-friendly fare by They Might Be Giants, only without the borderline stodginess. Pluto’s orbit is eccentric, as is Math the Band. And yet I love them both.
- "Homework Sucks"
Lyrically, this song recalls earlier references to being "under the ocean" and robots, which might be recurring themes. Of course, I could just be paying a little too much attention to lyrical subtleties. In essence, this is anthem centered on the refusal to grow up. Maybe. Again, perhaps I’m paying too much attention. Still, at less than two minutes, it manages to achieve an oddly sweeping air.
- "Techno Machine (With a Laser Beam)"
"Techno Machine" comes off a bit too nouveaux disco for my liking, what with the abundance of staccato vocals and harsh rhythm. It’s one of the few moments only the album that loses me, but at under a minute and a half, it’s a minor inconvenience at worst.
- "Dinosaurs Were Made Up by the CIA to Discourage Time Travel"
Another fantastic transition leads to a track boasting what is, perhaps, the best song title ever. It recaptures some of the inertia lost on "Techno Machine," and it integrates an odd stuttering click that’s maddeningly catchy. It also features equations – which only a band like this could get away with without sounding pretentious or totally preposterous – and another genuinely elegant ending.
- "Shoeless Wonder"
"Dinosaurs" trails nicely into "Shoeless Wonder," a song marked by expertly implemented secondary vocals that punctuate and break up its sometimes thick sound. And while I’m glad I finally know "who put the bop in the bop shu bop shu bop," its jarring end is a little bit of a buzzkill.
- "Third Sunday of October the First"
Allow me to quote: "I thought that I’d try something different / my band’s gonna sound like a videogame… like The Postal Service but hopefully not as lame." With "keytars and electric beats" sandwiched between crispy layers of whimsy and odd echo effects, I can’t help but say that Math succeeds in the aforementioned task.
- "Shark Attack"
An immediately engaging nonsensical tale, "Shark Attack" is another excellent introduction to the band’s sound that just so happens to show up at the end of the album. It’s got a catchy and capably created melody, a scream-along refrain, and an outro that’s a great in-joke in its own right.
- "Shark Attack (Reprise)"
This lilting piano rendition of "Shark Attack" is totally unnecessary and wholly charming. It really drives home what’s great about Math: their genuine enjoyment of the music-making process and refusal to take things too seriously. The vocals are a bit whiny, but it’s still a fantastic end to a fantastic album of fun-loving, absurdist genius.
The tracks are, more often than not, tiny nuggets of musical excellence, and through them Banned the Math succeeds on two primary levels. Not only are the songs themselves imminently enjoyable, but the project as a whole is cohesive, well-paced, and solidly engaging. It's one thing to make good songs, but arranging them into a proper album is totally different beast. Banned the Math proves unequivocally that Math the Band does both.
While obviously not for everyone, Banned the Math is easy to recommend to those who enjoy music for music’s sake, as well those with an appreciation for the unusual and the exemplary. I can’t make any guarantees that you’ll enjoy it quite as much as I do – which is a lot – but at $10 it’s a must-purchase for the geeky music lover in you. (EDIT: Looks like you can currently get the album and a t-shirt for $15 via Math’s MySpace. Get on that shit!)
In the end, with their humorous lyrical slant, well-crafted but never exaggerated instrumentation, and emphasis on music as a fun and engaging experience, Math the Band is an easy act to support. So take a moment to check out the album samples, and, if it gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling, kick a couple of bucks to some folks who really deserve it.
And, if you get a chance, check them out live. It helps you develop a whole new appreciation their unique brand of musical mischief.