I’m not even sure at this point when or how I stumbled across the Occasion. But I do remember the precise moment that I heard “I Can’t Stop Falling.” It’s a song so compelling you just fall effortlessly into the little world it creates, this pocket fiction you want to take with you and study with rapt, slightly stunned attention. The refrain “I can’t stop falling,” repeated often and with a slowly escalating sense of desperation, is punctuated by sharp, startling whip-cracks of percussion. It is by turns quiet and poetic, furious and tense. “Sooner or later it will come to me,” singer Jordi Wheeler whispers, sounding like a man resigned to a peculiar sort-of hell that he both fears and welcomes.
After some investigating, I found out that “Falling” was off of their self-titled debut [Say Hey, 2004]. Their second album, Cannery Hours [Say Hey], is equally intense, building on similar timeless, enigmatic lyrical concerns and playful sense of sonic experimentation. Musically, the band paints in watercolors —sometimes in broad, dusky swathes, sometimes with bright, pointillist delicacy. Equal parts fitful and elusive, songs like the epic “The Maiden” and the stoic “Register My Complaints” evoke parched soundscapes —deserts where one or two hardy species of plant survive, seemingly against all odds. “You May Know Me” is touched with a rare, effortless sense of grace and buoyed by double-tracked, gentle harmonies and Brent Cordero’s plangent piano. In addition to the somewhat formal, elegiac quality, there’s also a subtle, surreal sense of whimsy at work. “What is this?” Jordi sings on “Register My Complaints”, “Is it the work of some imaginative florist?”
Loosely speaking, The Occasion traffic in a kind of pastoral psychedelia. Psychedelia is, at heart, about freeing music from earthbound limitations, and in turn invoking a trance-like state in the listener. And the sum total of the Occasion’s music offers no such balm. Songs often begin with undulating, gentle waves of sound, lulling you into a false sense of complacency, only to stun you with distortion and rumbling basslines. From there, it builds to these incredible crescendos, pulling you effortlessly to the top of a massive swell and leaving you there, slightly stunned and wondering how in the hell you’re going to get down to Earth again.
The band is, in some ways, a bit of a Frankenstein creature —the push and pull of influences is sometimes internal, and they’re a better band for it. While their sound certainly has some antecedents in the 60s and 70s (the Velvets, Cale, Tony Conrad, echoes of the motorik mantras of Can, Amon Duul II, and Neu!) it also has the crisp single-mindedness and emotional raggedness of post-punk, post-rock groups like Savage Republic, Slint, and Scenic. (The S’s in a row were purely coincidental.) They manage to incorporate three singers —Brent Cordero (vocals, Rhodes piano), Charles Burst (vocals, drums), and Jordi Wheeler (vocals, guitar)— without compromising individual songwriting styles. Yet, somehow, everything coalesces in this incredibly organic way, aided and abetted by the equally impressive contributions of bassist Marlon Sporer and tape loop guru/percussionist Sara Shaw, whose deft way with splicing gives the songs their tenacious, slightly windswept quality.
I’ve caught the band live twice now —once during CMJ at Sin-é, and recently at Boston’s Middle East, where they were opening for Acid Mothers Temple. Both shows were impressive in different ways, The first because the band took their limited time and ran with it, giving us a concise set that never once let up in intensity. Seeing them a little over a month later at the Middle East, it was clear that touring with loose-limbed collective Acid Mothers Temple had liberated the band in some crucial ways. Songs that were organic to begin with became even more freeform, ebbing and flowing with a newfound confidence and innate sense of trust. That, and they seemed to be having a lot more fun.
“Cannery Hours” and “The Occasion” are out now on Say Hey. | The band hopes to be playing some dates soon —check the band’s site for details. | Their MySpace page has their recent BBC session (which they promise on vinyl soon!).