Sound Advice: The Past is a Foreign Country by A. David MacKinnon

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Sound Advice: The Past is a Foreign Country by A. David MacKinnon

The former FemBot makes a surprisingly jazz-heavy, cinematic solo debut.

In some ways, former FemBot A. David MacKinnon’s solo debut, The Past is a Foreign Country, is the exact opposite of what you’d expect from the local indie stalwart. Piano-centric, heavily jazz-influenced and completely instrumental, Foreign Country is a fair distance away from the introspective indie folk the FemBots were known for.

On the other hand, it’s possible that The Past is a Foreign Country is exactly what you’d expect from a former FemBot. As a band, the FemBots were also well known for a tendency to incorporate non-traditional instruments into their sound and a love of things cinematic, as evidenced by everything from their name to the sci-fi-esque video for “My Hands are a City” to their work on the soundtrack for Bruce McDonald’s 2007 film The Tracey Fragments. Foreign Country is cut from the same cloth.

First: non-traditional instruments. This is an album is filled with hard-to-place sounds. (The song “Clock Against Typewriters” seems to incorporate both clocks and typewriters.) And in FemBots fashion, it is also oddly cinematic—the entire album feels as if it could be a film score. Even without lyrics, there’s an oddly narrative flow to the album. It kicks off forcefully, with the jazzy, driving title track, then moves into slightly more introspective territory with the mournful “Time vs. The Sylvan Apartments,” before hitting the triumphant high note of “Looking for Ambrose Small” and then book-ending the story with the oddly resigned “Gospel vs. Church.”

There are no real weak spots on The Past is a Foreign Country, but the title track and “Clocks Against Typewriters” stand out above the rest. The former feels like it could be used to score a foot chase in a ’70s action flick, with its combination of understated jazz drumming, aggressive piano riffs, and soaring, barking horns. “Clocks Against Typewriters” is a song that builds up beautifully, starting off with just piano and percussion, and eventually exploding into a joyous, multilayered cacophony.

The Past is a Foreign Country isn’t a tremendously accessible album. It’s too jazzy for most indie rock fans, but has far too many folk, rock, and even gospel influences for the sort of jazz purists who might otherwise be attracted to it. That said, it is interesting, beautiful, smart, and often fun. Its appeal may not be universal, but those who like it will probably love it.

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