It pretty much looks like we’re never going to get another album out of Austin, Texas slow-core band the American Analog Set (much to the dismay of some of my music-loving friends on Facebook, who have opined about the breakup), but fans might have something to rejoice in as frontman Andrew Kenny has a new group on which to now focus his attention: the much more countrified The Wooden Birds. The band was formed in 2008 and is notable for featuring American Analog Set guest performer Leslie Sisson in the ranks, as well as Matt Pond, a noted songwriter in his own right under the Matt Pond PA moniker. Two Matchsticks marks Kenny and company’s second foray into Americana country-folk rock, and it is a confidently assured collection of 12 songs that work extremely well together in a consistent, even, and oak-varnished form.
To be honest, the first time I listened to Two Matchsticks, I found the album rather unassuming. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t like it, but I just thought that it kind of washed over you and was more of an ambient, background noise type of disc – something that was ordinary as opposed to quaint, serving no real utility other than wallpaper that didn’t draw you in and hook you with its melodies. It wasn’t until my kid sister recently gave birth to my nephew, finding myself on a train to visit her in a city two hours away, that I threw on the album (located on my handy iPod) closed my eyes, and got brilliantly swept away by the majestic, soft lull of the 12 songs found on Two Matchsticks. In other words, the album clicked for me. There’s something about the soft, barely-there percussion and plaintive male/female vocals that’s perfectly suited to the click-clack of train wheels speeding on. It’s an album that brings out its best qualities on the road, taking part in a journey, plunging head-first into discovery. In fact, this disc is about as tiny, fragile, and endearingly cute as my sister’s newborn.
The trip that makes up Two Matchsticks starts off with “Folly Cub”, which boasts a dreamy, floating guitar against Kenny’s almost Lindsey Buckingham-esque crooning and shuffling percussion. (The album doesn’t boast any real drums at all, counting its beats mostly as palms slapped on the side of an acoustic guitar or mixed-down tambourines and shakers.) From there, things get a little darker with the title track, but the electric guitar work still floats by and ripples against light acoustic strumming. “Cross My Heart” is a vibes-soaked lullaby that shuffles at a slow trot. “Criminals Win” has a particular Fleetwood Mac feel to it in its quiet, halogen-lamp lit starkness. You can probably see a pattern emerging here: Two Matchsticks is an atmospheric, lush album of soft beauty that is unrelenting in its starkness over the course of its duration.
There are some very mild shakeups found along the way. About midway through the record, Kenny lets Sisson shine by handing her lead vocals on the peppy, vital “Baby Jeans”, which rolls away at more of a gallop than anything to be found on the rest of Two Matchsticks. However, the album gently settles back into its ordinary trajectory and plods from there at a mid-tempo pace, conjuring up visions of wheat fields and wide-swept prairies through its hypnotizing twang. There are side-dalliances into folksy territory, though, particularly on “Be No Lie”, the album’s penultimate track, which has an almost early Iron and Wine feel with its indie charm. However, the retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life that Two Matchsticks unspools is by and large staked in mid-western country territory.
If there’s any failing with Two Matchsticks, it’s the lack of any real drum work. It makes the album bleed into itself a little too seamlessly, resulting in some lazy and languid moments, especially during some of the album’s most ordinary tracks, such as “Company Time”. Most of the songs on the record also have no fade-outs, so they have a habit of petering out and just stopping on a dime with no sense of connection to any real and concrete conclusions. However, the evenness that percolates throughout the album is paradoxically a bit of a strength, creating a mood that works well in certain circumstances. That makes Two Matchsticks a record to be played in low-key situations, when you’re looking to unwind and relax with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand or falling asleep. It also works as a grey soundtrack to drab and dull overcast days. I’m not sure what fans of the American Analog Set are going to think about Kenny’s move into country and folk territory, but Two Matchsticks, which is its own form of slow-core, is a quiet, lilting little album that is strong enough, full of a warm gauze of soft ballads, to tide over fans for the time being.