Review: Mico – “Outside the Unbearable Grows”

In the Bill Condon film Gods and Monsters, the director James Whale (played by Ian McKellen), when not making films such as Frankenstein, passes his time imitating and retracing the brush strokes of some of the Old Masters. No longer able to work through his own artistic vision on celluloid, the aging filmmaker turns to merely replicating the work of others, playing the part of a kind of Xerox machine filled with artistic longing it has no means to channel.
Condon makes Whale’s photo-static act feel inherently tragic, somewhat indicative of how Whale has long since passed his own creative peak. The world of rock and roll, however, is a much different beast.

On its latest full-length, the Calgary-based quintet Mico exercises its emotive, guitar-based indie-rock roots, crafting songs that are catchy but have an interesting sense of texture and depth to them. When taken as a whole, though, the record feels like a good number of others you might have heard recently, a collection of 10 songs that don’t tend to reinvent the formulas as much as they just ache to get them right.

That being said, the musicianship on display throughout Outside the Unbearable Grows can be admirable. The three-guitar approach lends Mico a weight to even its most familiar refrains, and there are key details to the record that are worth noting. There is nothing on the record, though, that will change your life and have you rushing to add this to your holiday wish list. At most, like watching James Whale’s ritual of reproduction in Gods and Monsters, Mico impresses with its ability to sound good at doing what others have already done.

Songs worth a second or third listen on the disc are the oddly atmospheric title track, which drives forward with incredible, off-tempo rhythms and almost elegiac guitars, or the poppy “The Other World is Possible,” whose glassy guitars and sugar-sweet piano – separate from the overcooked distortion of occasional choruses – could be borrowed from Seam’s Are You Driving Me Crazy?

These tracks are surrounded, sadly, by more conventional pieces, like “This Great Achievement” or “Lina Tres,” stop-and-start crunchers that get lost in shifts between angular verses and choruses. What is additionally disorienting about the record is Mico’s strange adherence to vague political statements. Sample: “How can we survive in a world fueled by greed? Where truths are filled with hypocrisies.” (Even the playfully titled “Cheers for Subversion” walks away with reductive lines like, “This system based on greed has our leaders drunk with power.”)

The band fits its skin – and its sound – better when it speaks more from the heart than the head, intoning lines like the direct but affective “The failure to act is the real crime / Your identity is what you buy. In this time of great achievement, I have never felt so scared, never been so scared.”

Mico pulls out some interesting moments on its most recent release but, despite the band members’ technical abilities or whatever emotional investment they may have in their music, Outside the Unbearable Grows largely feels like a record you’ve heard. In a larger industry that does not frown upon those who strive to perfect the safety of formulas instead of displaying an edgy inventiveness, this may not be too much of a detriment. Just don’t ask Bill Condon how he might frame it. – Delusions of Adequacy, Dec. 16, 2003

About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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