Great Album Reviews: The Dust of Retreat

Album: The Dust of Retreat
Artist: Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s
Genre: Pop, Chamber Pop, Indie
Year: 2006


Just after Pandora came out of beta, I created a station seeded from Damien Rice, and one of the songs that kept popping up was “Jen is Bringin the Drugs” by Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s.  It’s Richard Edwards — singer, rhythm guitarist, and chief songwriter for Margot — by himself, a sad song with just an acoustic guitar and vocal, and it has an aching, world-weary beauty that stuck with me. So when I went to MySpace Music to check out the band, I was surprised to discover that Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s actually has a roster that rivals its unwieldy moniker.  The band has something like nine people in it, and most of the tracks on The Dust of Retreat feature layered guitars, bass, piano/keys, horns, strings, drums, and percussion.

A bigger surprise came when I saw them live, and Margot instantly became maybe the heaviest band I have ever seen — and I’ve seen Cryptopsy, Metallica, the Dillinger Escape Plan, Napalm Death, you name it.  In the Troubadour in Los Angeles, they brought the members of the opening act up onstage with them, at times resulting in 12 people playing together, threatening to buckle the rafters with what I had always thought of as nice little indie pop songs.
That just goes to show that there is nothing else out there like Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, and their debut album, The Dust of Retreat, is a unique work that insists on being listened to over and over again.  There is a breadth of diversity on Dust, but it still manages to remain cohesive.  “Quiet as a Mouse,” for instance, begins as an atmospheric mystery conjuring images of alienation, and explodes into a clinic of wall-of-sound rock.  “Talking in Code” tips delicately between a soft acoustic guitar and what sounds like an entire marching band, all anchored by Edwards’ tender, melancholy vocals.  Margot has been compared to Arcade Fire, which isn’t quite right, and I hear echoes of Death Cab for Cutie, though more raw and earthbound, and the later Beatles albums, with the notable exception that those albums were culled together from four distinct voices, and Margot’s work reflects the strong, if diverse, guiding hand of a single architect.
After The Dust of Retreat, Epic Records signed the band, and the immediate result was a very public dispute over the content of the band’s major label debut.  Epic released an album called Not Animal, and permitted the band to release their own preferred version, Animal!, on vinyl and (eventually) digital.  Both are wonderful albums (but FYI, the preferred version of “Broadripple is Burning,” woefully over-produced on Not Animal, can be found here, as performed at Daytrotter Studios), but they seem less urgent than Dust, so it remains at the top of my Margot playlist.
Potential barriers for the uninitiated: One of the strengths of this album is its musical diversity, but lyrically the songs are uniformly pretty somber.  This album feels like it was written while trapped inside during an Indianapolis winter (and it probably was…), and while there are moments of real humor that poke through — “Paper Kitten Nightmare” stands out — people who aren’t so into the mopey side of indie rock might have a couple of hang-ups with the record.  
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