Wisconsin native, Ryan Smith, AKA A Million Billion may be known to some for his position as touring keyboardist for ambient orchestral popsters, The Silent League. He’s also assisted on several other projects including Stars Like Fleas, Mogami and has even successfully outdone Bloc Party with his remixed version of ‘Positive Tension’. Let’s just say he gets around. Credentials schmedentials, what of his latest enterprise?
I’ll have to admit – the opening track on Filthy Schoolgirls (‘The Oceanographer’s Worst Nightmare’) made me flinch a little. You know the feeling – perhaps you tell your wife the mashed potatoes are too lumpy and you prepare to meet the backside of her hand. I was met with two full minutes of warm, glitchy pops and squelches – certainly not what I was anticipating after perusing the press sheet, that promised Sparklehorse and Mercury Rev-inspired mood-pop. In fact, the album is bookended by this type of ambient, electronic exploration and, suffice to say, once you listen to the entire EP through a few times it becomes less and less a disruption and more a welcome amalgamation of sounds.
The tender, chewy insides of the EP, however, show off Smith’s more accesible pop-oriented side. Don’t expect huge choruses and hooks though – Ryan instead uses a hodepodge of instruments, found sounds and his hushed vocals (that actually remind me of Sam from Iron & Wine a bit) to sculpt bitter, yet moving pop songs. His love for the glockenspiel is immediately evident on the majority of the tracks, especially on the charming ‘Home Wisconsin’ and twinkling ‘Starb’. The bittersweet ache of the classical violin on ‘Time To Be Tired’ could cause even the most leather-skinned individual to become stricken with emotion and flashbacks of their childhood gone awry. I’d have to say this is my favorite track on the EP followed not too far behind by the gloomy, elegiac lament of ‘Sandcastles’ – which eerily reminds me of Phantom of The Opera. Gripes? The choral lullaby on the title track tends to drag a bit and overstay its welcome. Had this been cut in half it might not have been so intrusive and unnecesary. Other than that…
It’s hard to believe Ryan created, assembled and recorded Filthy Schoolgirls in only a few weeks. The more I listened to this the more I began to realize and fully appreciate Smith’s subtle arrangements and fragile delivery. Couple that with the calm, soothing haze the EP envelopes you with and you’ve found the perfect cure for the unexpected panic attack. Had I quit the show after the initial flinch I might not have been able to get this far and likely would have cast this off on someone else to review. I’m glad I didn’t. Exercising patience with Filthy Schoolgirls should yield nothing but positive results and satisfaction. Nicely done.