[1 November 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Being a reviewer means that you sometimes come across an item by a band that has been publically lauded in other quarters and have to tell the world that, well, the Emperor is really wearing no clothes. Naturally, this doesn’t make one popular sometimes, but it’s a dirty job that someone has to do. This is the task that is before me in reviewing the latest album by A Sunny Day in Glasgow, a Philadelphia-based shoegaze band that has actually gotten a lot of glowing press in the last few years, despite the fact that the band has gone through numerous personnel changes (including everything from band members suffering broken bones to a desire to pursue college).
The band’s 2007 debut, Scribble Mural Comic Journal, received high acclaim from music websites like Pitchfork, which meted out an 8.0 rating, and Drowned in Sound, which gave the album an even higher grade (nine out of 10) and considered it an album of the year. That’s not all. Tiny Mix Tapes doled out a 4.5 out of five star review to the 2009 sophomore album, Ashes Grammar, citing that “Together these tracks cohere beautifully, like illogical, subconscious details crystallized into a dream narrative.” Coke Machine Glow gave the record an 88 percent rating and noted that, “There’s a sugary core of melody, rhythm and impeccable production.” Clearly, this is a band that is beloved in some areas. It pains me to write, then, that A Sunny Day in Glasgow has finally issued a dud with its third long-player, Autumn, Again. It’s a sort of odds and sods collection intended as a reward to fans for supporting the band through the scant four years of its existence. Only the most diehard of those who enjoy this group will, alas, find anything worthy of substance to be found, and even then that might be pushing it.
Autumn, Again is being released as both a completely free digital download and as a limited-edition, maroon-coloured, 12-inch vinyl album through the band’s website – but only until the winter solstice rolls around. (I imagine a late-night TV commercial pitchman popping up here to announce that you should “act now before this offer is gone”). The collection consists of 11 songs that didn’t make the cut on Ashes Grammar or the follow-up EP Nitetime Rainbows. Considering the songs which appear here on Autumn, Again didn’t make the grade for not one but tworeleases should raise a bit of a red flag. Indeed, the bulk of what makes up Autumn, Again is clearly bottom-shelf material.
Part of the problem lies in the album’s production. According to the accompanying press release, the vocals for the songs were recorded in hotels, apartments and art centers throughout Europe, and the release also notes that it was hard to get all of the players together to record the album (songwriter and band founder Ben Daniels now lives in Sydney, Australia). That the record was stitched together in various places really shows. The sound is muffled, particularly on the bass and keyboards end, and the angelic female vocals are sometimes buried far, far in the mix. The start of album-opening title also has a great deal of tape hiss, further muddying the waters. Ultimately, the record plays as though it were recorded in a haze, with the sound so muffled, you might as well throw some blankets over your speakers to accentuate the effect. To use another analogy, much of Autumn, Again feels as though you’re standing in the very back of a concert hall with the music just washing over you in a drone above the crowd chatter. The LP’s sound puts one at a distance from the music, and never draws you into it. While many shoegaze albums are said to be overtly fussed-with to perfection, there are moments on Autumn, Again where the opposite problem seems to befall: it is actually under-produced to a certain degree in all of its mid-fidelity.
The bigger issue here, though, is in the songwriting. A Sunny Day in Glasgow is musically a bit of a cross between The Cure circa Disintegration and My Bloody Valentine, but the group does little to assimilate those influences. In fact, when the band tries to weld together different musical ideas into its songs, the tracks feel like bastardized versions of something fully-formed. Everything passes by in a blur on Autumn, Again, with songs fragmented to the point of non-existence. As I sat down to write this review with the record playing in the background, I found myself surprised to be listening to the fourth track, but when I double-checked the running order on my media player, I was up to the seventh song already. As that proves, there is very little to distinguish one song from another, which alludes to another issue with this album. It has, shall we say, a certain lack of soulfulness. It doesn’t have a heart, or something tenable that latches into your cranium or subconscious and makes you walk around humming these cuts when you least expect it. It doesn’t grab you by the lapels and scream “listen to me!”. While A Sunny Day in Glasgow mines a particular sub-genre of shoegaze known as dream pop, and it’s true that much of the album is written on vapour trails and puppy dog tails, there’s really nothing memorable to latch onto – much of it comes off as robotic and mechanical. Additionally, a certain level of pretentiousness and self-indulgence can be found, with lengthy and cryptic song titles such as “Violet Mary Haunts Me OR Loss of Forgetfulness on Renfrew Street”, “How Does Somebody Say When They Like You?” and (my favourite) “This Assclown Eats Ambien OR Nobody Likes You (No Art)”. A Sunny Day in Glasgow can be guilty of taking itself a bit too seriously.
There is a bit of a highlight on the record by the time “100/0 (Snowdays Forever)” rolls around, which at least offers up a soaring, heavenly chorus. However, that track marks the very end of Autumn, Again, buried deep within the flotsam and jetsam of the record’s lack of memorable tracks. It takes roughly a half-hour to get there (the album is a fairly concise 33 minutes and 45 seconds long), and, by then, you might be left hoping that the end is near in a sheer effort to get the thing over and done with. With this digital album, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, seeing as though they’re a shoegaze band, can be thought of as clearly wearing no distinguishable footwear. They are barefoot and shoeless, which is to say that they’re entirely naked, wearing clothes stitched together by only invisible threads. Perhaps A Sunny Day in Glasgow is a critically revered band, and maybe they have a lot to offer on previous releases, but, here, all that’s on display is a attic-cleaning exercise, a “free gift” to fans being given away. The press release notes that Autumn, Again will be the last time the band sounds anything remotely like this before moving onto newer, greener pastures. Based on the flimsily constructed evidence on display, here’s hoping, for the benefit of the group’s continued success, that the press release is right.