At a mere 40 minutes and change, Both Lights is still practically too much for one sitting. On AU’s third album, the Portland, Oregon duo charges through a schizo array of compositions at such an unintuitive pace that it never quite satisfies as a whole. Song for song, part for part, Luke Wyland and Dana Valatka and assorted guest performers are so on top of their instrumental game that it’s hard to knock them for a little hyperactivity. In fact, the jumps in mood and style are impressive in themselves, considering the minimalist underpinnings of so many of these tunes. In Reichian fashion, Wyland builds most of these compositions on repetitive, percussive figures that evolve slowly, if at all, but he’s not content to let them simmer, instead decking them out with more traditional hooks. Unfortunately, the impatience throughout that forces all of AU’s Morse code dots and dashes into familiar pop forms on individual songs is partially what makes Both Lights so confounding as an overall experience.
Opening instrumental stunner “Epic” starts with a flurry of drums and a punishing finger-tapping guitar part worthy of Marnie Stern. There’s an initial rush, but, with only slight variations and Valatka’s impressive fills offering momentum, it could easily fall into music nerd exercise territory. Then just when you think the song will ride this repetition into the ground, there’s a dropout that’s all rock’n'roll drama. Here, on the first of his two memorable guest turns on the album, bass saxophonist Colin Stetson lays down a supporting rhythm that you feel in your gut for the rest of the song. When the main figure picks up again, Wyland slowly adds textures to the central rhythm, adding some doubt: Was there even a guitar at all, or has it always been keys or, perhaps, viola all along? By the end, Valatka is laying back, the main riff is modulating up and down, Stetson is holding steady with that rumbling sax, and there’s a horn section holding chords over the whole thing. Epic, indeed.
“Epic” may set a standard of excitement that Wyland and Valatka never quite meet again, but it’s indicative of the way that, in the album’s best moments, AU twists its repetitive impulses into accessible thrills on Both Lights. One key element, a double-edged sword here, is dynamics. On previous releases, AU favored similar rhythmic layering over traditional pop structures, but they’ve never blasted those rhythms out with this kind of force. Combined with Wyland’s reliance on acoustic instruments (understated on Both Lights) and his tendency as a vocalist to slowly croon his vowels over considerably busier instrumentation, it’s no wonder that AU has garnered comparisons to Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear. Both Lights isn’t departure enough to erase those comparisons completely, particularly on the horns and banjo-driven positivity anthem “Look Alive”, but the rock attack here is probably more akin to Battles covering one of those bands.
This increased mastery of intra-song dynamics, however, doesn’t translate into overall flow. The full force ostinati and whiplash rhythms of “OJ” are impressive enough in isolation and even leave room for some impressively twiddly keyboard soloing, but they’re a jarring lead-in to the mellow mood piece, “The Veil”. On “The Veil”, a bed of warm, throbbing drones, piano chords cut in and out, choked and abruptly starting mid-attack. The juxtaposition of the two tracks brings out “OJ”‘s abrasiveness and renders “The Veil” an innocuous palate-cleanser despite its own virtues. There’s a similar contrast at work in the transition from the frenetic “Why I Must” to the three-song suite of “Go Slow”, “Old Friend”, and “Don’t Lie Down”, which concludes the album in a consistently floaty mode, puzzling in itself in light of the extreme pushes and pulls of the rest of the album.
What’s curious is that, while AU seems to have trouble balancing its rhythmic and atmospheric urges for the album runtime, they do it well in individual songs. “Solid Gold” pulls together the various strands of Both Lights into an immensely satisfying microcosm. Starting with an airy, piano-backed dedication to “your eyes, bold and inspired” (one of the few lyrics that Wyland enunciates well), it jumps quickly into a frantic sixteenth note pattern on the keys and percussion, offset again by a Stetson-provided bass sax line. After a vocal harmony breakdown and an uncharacteristically traditional-sounding alto sax solo from Stetson, “Solid Gold” builds to a noisy and precise finish.
With individual tracks as strong as “Solid Gold”, “The Veil”, and, particularly, “Epic”, Both Lights is a terrific collection, and that may be enough for some people. But its failings in terms of flow, the inclusion of jarring throwaways like “Today / Tonight”, and some unflattering track juxtapositions make for an album best consumed in small bites.