The Mathletes, #$@% You and Your Cool

The Mathletes, #$@% You and Your Cool

Joe Mathlete, I underestimated you. Yeah, I did, and it’s damned embarrassing. How? Because I figured, stupidly, that any band that kinda-sorta made its name playing (admittedly entertaining) covers of people like My Bloody Valentine and sang songs about dehorned unicorns had to be pretty much a one-trick pony, not much worth paying attention to beyond the occasional chuckle (although yes, I do love the Marmaduke strips).

So, on the basis of absolutely zero evidence, I gave a too-busy shrug each time I had the opportunity to check out the spectacle that is The Mathletes. And like I said, it’s damned embarrassing, not least of which because the brand-new-ish Mathletes’ full-length, #$@% You and Your Cool, out on now-sadly-defunct Asaurus Records, is fucking brilliant. No lie — one of the best damn pop albums I’ve heard in the last few years, and it gets released into the ether nearly dead right at the start, the last release of a dying label (it’s apparently now only available at Sound Exchange or at shows), crafted by a shambling quasi-collective of Houston scenesters and musicians that ringmaster Joe Mathlete drags together as the need arises.

While Mathlete credits the album to The Mathletes, it’s really a rotating all-star cast of Houston musicians, including all of Young Mammals (ex-The Dimes) and members of The Defenestration Unit, Lazy Horse, and Two Star Symphony, plus probably a few I’ve never heard of before. The full list of Mathletes past is as long as my arm and delves even deeper into the crazy-talented indie-pop side of Houston’s music scene. (Hell, it even includes SCR contribs Justin Crane, Charlie Ebersbaker, & Anneli Chambliss.)

The “rotating cast” part of the thing makes perfect sense, really, if you look at it historically; call The Mathletes Houston’s answer to the whole (overblown, but still shining at points) Elephant 6 thing. Except that the music also resembles The Dead Milkmen, The Flaming Lips, The Apples In Stereo, The Polyphonic Spree, Machine Go Boom, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, The Mountain Goats, and TeenBeat heroes Eggs at various points. Although, um, about half of those “bands” are basically one genius-level songwriter doing his crazy, mind-blowing thing with random friends along for accompaniment. Kind of like The Mathletes. Whoa; I think I just accidentally furthered my point by trying to disprove it.

What I’m also trying to say, though, is that Cool hits a heck of a lot of indie-pop bases for me. Mathlete’s (the guy, not the band) voice is high-pitched and delicate, but not twee or warbly, thank God, and it melds the best elements of Tim DeLaughter’s smiling yelp, Jeff Mangum’s nasal strangeness, and Wayne Coyne’s fragile earnestness. And that latter bit, I think, is what makes Mathlete’s songs so damn endearing — he sounds so full-on serious about it, even when he’s singing bitterly about being a unicorn without a horn who keeps getting mistaken for a horse (“Hornless Unicorn Anthem”), musing on the damage an asteroid hit could cause to our fair planet (“ASTEROID!!!”), or delivering a half-serious warning to not view High School as the best point of your life, after which it all goes downhill (it’s not, and it shouldn’t; “Will’s Graduation Song”).

My absolute favorite track here’s got to be “Opening Number (Hollywood Version),” which sounds like it could be a piece from some very obscure (but awesome) nerd-rock musical — all of a sudden, Joe Mathlete taking a temporary sabbatical up to Austin not too long ago to do quirky musical theater based on the music of Daniel Johnston (Speeding Motorcycle, staged this past spring at the Zach Scott Theater) makes a hell of a lot more sense. (Thankfully, he’s back now, and Austin’s loss is Houston’s gain.) The jaunty horns, the Belle and Sebastian-esque vibe, the gentle, soft vocals; it all works together beautifully.

I don’t mean to belittle the rest of the album, mind you, because there are incredible songs all over the place. “ASTEROID!!!,” recorded live on KTRU, is appropriately noisy and raw, with the coolest drums imaginable (couresy of soon-to-be-gone Young Mammals drummer Iram Guerrero); squint a bit, and they like crazy, computer-produced drum & bass breakbeats. Opening track “Hornless Unicorn Anthem” comes off like driving Northern Soul at fist, a neo-psychedelic stomp complete with awesome organ, “That Stupid Grin On Your Face” manages to be simultaneously airy and fuzzy around the edges, with Mathlete’s soft-as-felt vocals, gently insistent strings, and sublime marimbas (and it’s about damn time marimbas became cool to incorporate into pop music again), and “Pinnochiobot Rock” is a roaring, anthemic song about robotic aspirations that Vampire Weekend would probably wish they’d come up with first, could they hear it.

Then there’s album-ender “Clumsy Little Symphonies,” which is Mathlete at his most (truthfully) autobiographical, a quiet, touching glimpse at the soul of a bedroom-pop maestro. On the one hand, Mathlete shrugs and stares at his feet, claiming that his “clumsy” songs aren’t quite what he wants ’em to be, so he hides away in his room; on the other hand, though, he recognizes that it’s what he does, declaring confidently that “I’ve done this since I was a kid / And I can keep it up ’til I’m a hundred and three,” regardless of whether or not anybody’s paying attention.

And in that, Joe and his crew represent one of the greatest things about music: you make it for yourself, first and foremost. Obviously, if you bother recording it and all that you do want it heard, sure, but to my mind the absolute best, most thrilling, most interesting music gets made by people who aren’t entirely sure where it fits in or if people will really like it but feel compelled to do it anyway. Because it’s all they know and all they need. Clumsy? No way; beautiful and sweet and quirky and wide-eyed, yeah, but #$@% You and Your Cool is as astonishly good as it is self-effacing.

[The Mathletes are playing 7/24/08 at Rudyard’s, with The Misfires & Lazy Horse.]
(Asaurus Records -- http://www.asaurus.org/; The Mathletes -- http://www.myspace.com/themathletes)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008. Filed under Reviews.

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