"Josh grew up on the plains of West Texas/ watching his parent's love die." This begins the second track of local band Ithica's self-titled debut album. The song "Open/On/Start/Live" quickly sets the scene for the record: a conceptual work about young Midwestern lovers adrift in Cleveland and suffering the same inescapable and lonely fates as their parents.
The lyrics and layout might read like a polite extension of the dark rural narrative established by Springsteen's Nebraska among others, but do not expect a mournful harmonica and hollow acoustic guitar against a backdrop of folk history. The sound of Ithica is something modern and altogether different.
Aurally, the band gravitates towards vocalist/guitarist Damion Shade's emotive singing and astute lyrical imagery dispersed between a web of electronic beats and cache of synths.
"Damion is a singer-songwriter at heart," said keyboardist Matt Sawyer. "We thought that mixing that with my electronic background would be interesting."
The resulting sound is ever shifting. Drummer Nathan Price and guitarist Travis Hall keep the songs teetering toward the indie rock spectrum of things when the material permits. However, the influences of trip-hop artists like Portishead and Massive Attack as well as electronic artists like The Postal Service and Múm cannot be denied.
All of these sounds provide a fresh backdrop to the macabre and complex tale of Josh and his love Julie. Shade lyrically paints a desolate Midwestern setting with bowling alleys, bottle-littered parking lots, infidelity, suicide and fast food establishments. He further enhances the narrative by singing from the perspective of the lovers themselves as well as spectators and family members providing a diverse almost literary approach to the tale.
"My goal as a songwriter is to challenge myself," Shade said. "I wanted to write a story album or story songs."
During the gestation of Ithica, Shade consciously cast off the idea of writing autobiographically. But small pieces of his life and experiences gradually crept into the album. Although Shade is ambivalent about the more personal references in the tracks, the detachment of songwriting provided him with perspective on those experiences.
"When you fictionalize it [in a song], you can empathize with it. There can be some healing connected to that," he said.
Occasionally the listener gets a sense of Shade as a more traditional singer/songwriter, such as on the vulnerable acoustic guitar-led track "Norman Rockwell Revisited." But for a majority of the album, Sawyer casts an electronic and synth-tinged fog over the songs, which resemble the "inky Cleveland nights" that originally unite Josh and Julie.
For the creative process of Ithica, Sawyer said that it starts simply with Shade's songs. Sawyer then begins arranging and organizing the music, layering harmonies and adding synths to fill in the sound.
The result is "endless tweaking, endless overanalyzing," he said. The sense of completion he added is "totally based on how exhausted we are. It's never perfect."
It seems that the band has finally reached that creative threshold because Ithica performs a CD release show for their debut at The Eclipse, 1336 E. Sixth St., Friday March 26 with Fiawna Forte and Daniel(s) also scheduled to perform.
The night has been many years in the making. Sawyer and Shade trace the beginnings of the album as far back as 2006 when Ithica was essentially just the two of them.
While recording, a computer crash resulted in the loss of 90 percent of its work on the album. The group was forced to start again from scratch.
"It's probably a better record because of it," Sawyer said.
While re-recording in Sawyer's living room, the need for additional instrumentation became apparent. Hall, a member from Sawyer and Shade's old band, The Credit, began adding guitar parts.
"We started to realize how much the music needed drums," Sawyer said. Local heavyweights Hero Factor had recently disbanded in 2007, and drummer Nathan Price was looking for a new project. He was quickly recruited and what Sawyer and Shade call the "real Ithica" formed in late 2007.
While Price and Hall joined the project, progression on the album remained gradual. In hopes of saving money, the band waited for discounts on off-peak hour studio times. Ithica members also became involved with other musical projects at the time. Both of these circumstances further contributed to the lack of momentum with the production of Ithica.
Songs began to stack up for Shade, while finishing the album. During the summer of 2009 alone he wrote eight instrumental tracks that became the EP Bertrand Russell's Ice Cream Truck.
"A lot of the EP is me learning to use [the recording software] Reason," Shade said.
"It's probably a lot less accessible [than the full-length]," Sawyer said, but Shade was quick to disagree.
The sound of Bertrand Russell's Ice Cream Truck builds on the electronic ambitions of Ithica and spreads them into every possible direction. The result achieves a hypnotism, minimalism, melodicism and ungauardedness that the group could not achieve on Ithica. The concrete and abstract narratives of the full-length are exchanged for tones and repetition, intricate rhythms and drones that almost have a dialogue themselves.
In a creative purge of sorts, the band will offer Bertrand Russell's Ice Cream Truck as a free download for those that purchase the Ithica CD at the show. Shade said that he hopes the additional material will surprise listeners and demonstrate the diverse ambitions and abilities of the band.
After their performance at The Eclipse, Ithica has their collective eyes on performing at Norman Music Festival in April and Dfest this coming summer. However, Shade said that promotion from live performance of the album would be limited.
"I don't think we will be a band that plays a lot live," he said. Shade cited scheduling conflicts among the members and personal obligations as the cause.
With the coming release of more than 20 songs, Sawyer and Shade are already discussing a proper follow-up to Ithica. From what the duo said, it will be a quite different affair from the debut. They hope the learning curve of the first album will be able to expedite the production of its successor.
"We've seen the whole process now, so we know what we're doing," said Shade.
Shade continues to challenge himself by writing an album comprised of largely autobiographical music; something he has been hesitant to do previously. Regardless of what the musical future holds for Ithica for now they are happy with what they have and where they are now.
"As a first album that we made in our living room, I can say I'm proud of it," Shade said.
"It seems like an old album to us," Sawyer said, "but I still like it which is a good sign."
Ithica will perform with Fiawna Forte and Daniel(s) at The Eclipse on Friday, March 26.
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