+/- {Plus/Minus}: Let's Build A Fire
Absolutely Kosher

Having spent the last five years perfecting its distinctive brand of wistful guitar pop, NY trio +/- {Plus/Minus} (James Baluyut and Patrick Ramos on guitars and vocals, and Chris Deaner on drums) sounds poised to break wide open, judging by its third release, the exceptional collection Let's Build A Fire. Conjuring greatness from the standard guitar-bass-drums-vocals setup and four-minute pop structures is no small accomplishment but one +/- {Plus/Minus} pulls off with seeming ease.

Imagination plays a key part, something the group has in spades (listen to how cleverly the group works stuttering pauses into the song structure of “One Day You'll Be There,” for instance), as does the capacity for surprise: the title song opens the album with a vinyl-encrusted, ‘30s ballroom jazz episode but the song unexpectedly explodes in a guitar- and horn-driven slam before revisiting the ballroom for the coda. Evidencing a similar aptitude for confounding expectation, “Ignoring All the Detours” establishes a wistful atmosphere using glockenspiels, strings, and hushed vocals, but the moment you think the group's gone soft, a blistering snarl of guitars and drums vaporizes everything in sight and closes the song in a ferocious firestorm of white noise. At other times, songs develop more predictably. Tribal drumming and clicking guitar patterns create tension in “Fadeout” as one awaits the detonation that finally arrives with crushing force at the four-minute mark. The album follows a slightly discernible trajectory, with its opening songs exploiting soft-loud dynamics (extremely loud at that) before the middle songs bring the decibel level down. “The Important Thing Is To Love,” for instance, proves that the group's as adept at producing emotive ballads and torch anthems as well as throwdowns.

At times, influences appear to be evident. +/- {Plus/Minus} toured with Death Cab For Cutie in 2005 and the experience left a lasting mark if “Steal the Blueprints” is any indication. The melodies and vocal style in the verse are Ben Gibbard in everything but name (though the chiming guitars and anthemic chorus are very much +/- {Plus/Minus}); elsewhere, the vocals in “Profession” and “Leap Year” sound like they must have been laid down after a late night spent digesting Radiohead and Mobius Band albums. Such derivative moments do little to diminish the album's superior caliber, however. For fans of intricate pop structures and guitar-driven euphoria, Let's Build A Fire is a magnificent ride from start to finish.

November 2006