Athens, Ga., has been the seat of a lot of hype, and its small-town hipsters, tooling around in dilapidated cars, preserved by cheap alcohol and the hot Georgia sun, know it. The hype and the hip are somewhat deserved: There is a staggering amount of musical output for a town with a population of 95,000. (Of course it follows that there is also a staggering amount of sludge.) The tiny oasis in the heart of Dixie has nursed the second-wave psychedelic Elephant 6 collective, eccentric folkmeister Vic Chesnutt and of course, for 20 years and counting, alt-rock heroes R.E.M. This time around a strange new hybrid has appeared, sprouted from seeds flung over from Texas via Florida and cross-pollinated by insects from the South Asian seas.
Macha is two brothers from Texas, one ex-Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians guitarist and a Georgian with the name of a Japanese video game hero. Familiar yet foreign, chaotic, yet painstakingly choreographed like a Kung Fu movie, Macha's music combines the precision tension-and-release postpunk of Mogwai with the lush, hypnotic grind of My Bloody Valentine and bits of new wave. But it's the rickshaw-load of esoterica that makes the band stand out. The following is just a short list of some of the exotic gear used on "See It Another Way": Javanese zither, Balinese bamboo flute, hammer dulcimer, Hawaiian slide guitar, talempong nipple gongs and Nepalese shawms. Add to that the standard guitar-bass-drums combo, a vibraphone and a '70s-era thrift-store organ called the Fun Machine. The result is like a Filonov canvas -- densely textured, organic, breathtaking and a little weird.
"See It Another Way" is Macha's second album, a strong follow-up to last year's debut, a sleeper hit that crept along before shooting up the national college music charts to No. 5. The guiding principle of that album was: Throw it all together and let it bootyshake. The outcome was giddy, complicated and fresh.
"See It Another Way," which has held the No. 1 spot on the college music charts for the past few weeks, is more subdued and a bit darker, and has a cleaner sound -- the studio mistakes of the first album have been corrected so that the acoustic instruments sound just as big as the guitars.
"Salty's" seductive vocals slide over the spare Javanese zither line at the heart of the song. Menace oozes from a moody, overdriven bass line. When vocalist Josh Mckay half-whispers, "We cleaned each other for comfort," it's less of a tender reminiscence than a post-tryst warning. The most captivating sequence of songs is a somber, pensive movement in three steps. "The Nipplegong," the album's centerpiece, is a melancholic rock tune, buoyed by an orchestra of gongs floating in a sea of organ chords and zither. Somehow the organ manages to sound just as foreign as the gongs. The trippy "Come Close" follows like a submerged afterthought. And finally, there is "Submarine Lover," a disturbingly dark lullaby with an eerie sprinkling of vibes.
The album isn't perfect. The Nepalese and Sumatran shawms and Balinese bamboo flute on "Until Your Temples Are Pounding" make exhilarating leaps, but even the beautiful bursts can't conceal the song's limp composition. And "Mirror's" sleepy frugality feels out of place, making it little more than shiftless filler. Furthermore, the streamlined quality of the album -- the straightforward structure of many of the songs and the way they sometimes zip from one to another -- is a little disappointing when compared with the structural ingenuity of the first record, both in terms of the individual songs and the way they were melded together into a deftly orchestrated succession of moods.
In this current music culture of hodgepodge, melting pots and pomo pastiche, the word "multicultural" too often means crude cut-and-paste rather than actual dialogue. Macha accomplish something a little more subtle. They explore the boundaries between cultures with maturity and tact instead of crossing them and plundering -- like Paul Simon -- or exploiting them as a gimmick -- like Ricky Martin or Kid Rock. It makes sense that Macha convened in Athens. Away from the overbearing and deafening cultural stew of a major metropolis, Macha have been able to take their fascination with multiplicity and tinker away, fashioning their own take on the shrinking world within a supportive, eclectic community.