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Summer Hours

Closer Still

(Technical Echo; US: 5 Feb 2013; UK: Import)

Last Call?

Brooklyn’s Summer Hours is probably calling it a day after some 15 years of existence in various guises. Originally called La Pieta until 2007, when the band discovered the name was already taken by a Canadian all-female violin group, Summer Hours have announced that their latest long player, Closer Still, will likely be their last owing to, according to the press release, “geographic distance and family commitments.” However, not making very much money probably would have had something to do with it, too, perhaps: the group went on record some time ago in an interview on AbsolutePunk.net as saying, “the band does not help any of us pay our bills, at least not yet. It’s still 100 per cent a labour of love.” And going through a few drummers probably got a little wearying, too. And having to release this record on your own independent label – the group is no longer with Deep Elm, who had released their previous album Alone Together – might have played some role.


Well, whatever the reason, and this is all conjecture anyway, you have to admit that Summer Hours’s following might be small, but they’re incredibly devoted: one of their female fans sent the band photos of a tattoo on her arms featuring some of the group’s lyrics, and used the song whose words she’d tattooed on herself in her wedding ceremony. That’s dedication. (Well, the tattooing part, anyway.) If anything, Closer Still, which I’d like to think is an amalgam of two Joy Division album titles, is a genuinely quietly stunning record with a few rough edges that should make people grieve over the looming loss of this indie twee-ish pop group. Discovering this record is a little like finding a hidden gem during some crate digging, and quickly making it one of those albums that, while it might not be called a favourite, you certainly cherish to some degree and feel glad to have heard – something that you might pull up out of your collection on a laid-back Sunday afternoon and listen to with some sense of longing and dreaminess.


What Summer Hours winds up sounding a lot like on Closer Still is a kind of sugary version of Yo La Tengo, with vocalist Rachel Dannefer coming across a little like Georgia Hubley (and, coincidentally, there’s a song titled “Georgia” here – homage?) with a dash of Kate Bush thrown into the mix. It’s an appealing, pixie-ish sound that is, indeed, very, very sweet to listen to. And opener “Close and Closer” could come across as a very Yo La Tengo-ish track, with its careening indie rock guitars and rolling, and yet brushed, drum line. At a hair more than three-and-a-half minutes, it’s the longest song on the album – a record that gets by in short, punchy sprints. (In fact, the final four songs on this 11-track album all hover around the two minute mark or less.) It’s also the knottiest, with the chorus played at a different tempo than the choruses. It’s just one of those songs that you’d expect to find on some obscure compilation album, and wonder, even though it sounds a bit like someone else, who is this band? It’s that compelling of a song.


But what follows is no slouch, either. “Brilliant Things” is a heartbreaking mid-tempo ballad-waltz which features Dannefer crooning to great effect, “It’s no fun to climb into an unhappy bed / Especially with you lying in it.” The band comes across as being a little Dressy Bessy-like here, which should be of no surprise when you learn that Summer Hours have played shows with that band. So, sure, Summer Hours isn’t exactly forging forward with a new template for indie rock, but, even if it does seem a little copycat-ish, it’s still fun to listen to – so strong are the melodies and Dannefer’s soaring voice.
 
The album just remains its overall sense of consistency from there. “Blanks” is a slow jam that could have been ripped from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, and it’s my favourite thing to appear here: “Things can be funny and they can be sad, too”, croons Dannefer in a soft voice and you can be easily mesmerized by the lull of the plaintive, heart-on-one’s-sleeve singing and the gentle propulsion of the guitar melody. “On My Own” is a rolling song with a gently brushed drum part – drummer Griffin Richardson clearly likes his brushes – and is a gentle swoon of a song. “Georgia”, a scorching guitar-lead gallop played to perfection by Mike Bliss, perfectly augments Dannefer’s vocals. And when she sings, “And now I’m left missing these things”, at a near shriek, you kind of just want to reach out and pat her on the head and mutter “there, there.” So by now it should be apparent that I’m pretty much in love with Dannefer’s voice, and, yes, I wouldn’t argue or debate about that. I just really love how saccharine she sounds without it sounding cloying in the least.


However, not all is perfect with Closer Still: “Organ Song” is nearly three minutes of Dannefer singing against a, wait for it, an organ as the only instrumentation that plays the same chords over and over – it comes across as a little filler-ish, though some people might like it for the sole fact that it may be the one moment on the record where the band isn’t wearing their influences on their collective sleeves. And, as mentioned earlier, the last third of the album kind of clips by exactly when you find that you want it to linger – and some of the songs don’t quite feel fully fleshed out. Still, Closer Still is a profoundly powerful statement, warts and all, and you may find yourself shedding a small tear that this could be it from Summer Hours. How they didn’t manage to find a larger audience, I don’t know, but I suppose when you don’t offer something that’s utterly revolutionary, people may tend to not pay as much attention. And yet, despite that, Summer Hours do what they do – or did – very, very well.


As a final curtain call, Closer Still is a pretty good bow, and one that might leave you mourning that a band that has this much to offer would ever manage to call it quits. But if that does make one sad and reflective, at least we have the option to simply put the album on repeat and play it again. At least, for that, be thankful that Summer Hours have given listeners one last chance to hear what makes them so special. Even if a large chunk of that is simply getting lost in the elven charms of Dannefer’s unassailable and syrupy voice.

Rating:

Zachary Houle is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction, and the recipient of a writing arts grant from the City of Ottawa. He has had journalism published in SPIN magazine, The National Post (Canada), Canadian Business, and more.


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