There’s something strange about the name of Indiana-based indie darlings Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s sophomore release. The title “Not Animal” defines the album not by what it is, but by what it is not.
This negative definition stems from a dispute with their new label, Epic, over which songs to include on the album. Though the band’s preferred version (“Animal!”) is available digitally and on vinyl, it is the big, bad record label’s “Not Animal” which hits CD stores across America.
But the two albums aren’t as diametrically opposed as their names suggest.
They share five songs, including the irresistible “As Tall as Cliffs.” The track begins humbly with droning harmonica, muted trumpet and a hodgepodge of percussion before bursting into a chorus so catchy that it manages to make “Darling, I’m tired and I should be leaving” sound triumphant.
Also doing double duty is “Cold, Kind and Lemon Eyes,” which, unfortunately, is every bit as dull and unnecessarily long as its name. The song’s winning melody is encumbered by an overbearing mélange of cello, synth and a trudging beat.
With eight official members whose specialties range from the banjo to the melodica, it’s easy for Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s to get caught up with all the sounds and styles at their disposal.
But at its best, that diversity ensures that “Not Animal” is a lush, varied aural adventure.
Take “Pages Written on the Wall,” which begins innocently enough with a minute of delicate piano and acoustic guitar before devolving into a brutal clash of cymbals, out-of-key horns, and squealing electric guitars, in which frontman Richard Edwards wails, “Let’s settle our score with a two by four.”
Like other album standouts “Broadripple is Burning” and “Shivers (I’ve Got ‘Em),” the song artfully uses dissonance to enhance and create beauty. Interestingly, these gems are nowhere to be found on “Animal!” Their inclusion here shows that Epic wasn’t afraid to take a few chances with the album.
You may have noticed that I have yet to mention Margot’s work in the band. That’s because she doesn’t exist. The name comes from a character in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film, “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Fittingly, both “Not Animal” and the movie are decidedly smart, hip, indie, and both find harmony in profoundly disharmonious places.
For better or worse, “Not Animal” is not “Animal!” — but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most ferociously enjoyable albums of 2008.
Staff writer Nick Scheidies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.