[5 April 2004]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
An unfortunate fact about the music industry is that it is inexplicably grounded in the herd mentality. Once a particular image and/or sound successfully takes hold, everyone blindly follows in an effort to capitalize on the moment. With each wave of mass-produced clones, however, there exist a limited number of original artists brave enough to eschew trends and establish themselves as a deviation from the curve. Sanford Arms is one such act, and the group’s sophomore effort, The Twilight Era, is a welcome respite from the current crop of pop punk duplicates.
Although hailing from Seattle, the band shares little with the city’s grunge pioneers of the previous decade; Sanford Arms is as divergent from the angst-ridden Nirvana as it is from the dour Alice in Chains. This does not suggest the band lacks brooding emotion; it doesn’t. In fact, The Twilight Era‘s tracks are undeniably melancholy, yet the sheer sophistication of the music places Sanford Arms somewhere comfortably between The Cure and vintage Al Stewart. Carving out such a niche is a success in its own right, as anything less convincing would make the band a feeble incarnation of the equally feeble Creed.
Polished instrumentation and fluid vocals give much of the album a somber grace unique for a band’s second recorded effort. The real key lies in songwriter Ben London’s uncanny ability to harness various aspects of desolation and give them musical accessibility. The songs “Rodeo”, “Ocean”, and “MacArthur” flow with an implicit sadness, while “Here’s Now” resonates with a distinctly mournful tone. What makes The Twilight Era so impressive, though, is its delicate balance of emotion; it is evocative without being contrived.
Not everything is gray skies for London, however, as scattered rays of sunshine break through on the wistful pop of “Love Conquer Me Again” and “How Could You Know?” The band even boasts its creative dexterity on the distinctly Oasis-like “Wallpaper” and “Party Light”, two songs that ebb and flow with precision.
While the song styling of The Twilight Era is subtle and polished, the album is not without its minor failings. Included in the eleven tracks are the paltry “Lightning Rod” (one minute) and “Omni” (20-plus seconds). While both are moving pieces, they are mere snippets. There is no excuse for not having every song count, and an album of this quality would have been better served had these been full-length tracks.
That said, Sanford Arms has succeeded on several fronts with their new album: The band has followed up its critically acclaimed 2001 debut Too Loud for the Snowman with equal promise; London and Company have shown that they can wear heavy hearts on their sleeves while crafting an attractive collection of songs. The Twilight Era proves that there is still room for thought-provoking music amidst the present chart-clogging conveyor belt dreck.
Therein lies the ultimate irony of Sanford Arms’ music: The very sadness that embodies The Twilight Era is something we can rejoice in.
Something a bit different, but something a cut above.