Indie groups that cite Brian Wilson as a major influence are about as rare as cars that run on gasoline. You can chalk the American quintet Bell Gardens up as another one. No, it’s not just Wilson’s close harmonies and wide open, symphonic arrangements that inform Bell Gardens’ debut album, Full Sundown Assembly. Girl group-era Phil Spector, the soundtrack work and arrangements of Spector protégée Jack Nietzsche, and naturally, Dylan, are also cited as influences. These can all be heard on Full Sundown Assembly, but they are all ancillary to the now-iconic sound of Wilson in the decade between Pet Sounds and Love You.
With Full Sundown Academy, Bell Gardens principals Kenneth James Gibson and Brian McBride have created an eight-song cycle that is intimately and meticulously constructed and yet panoramic in its hazy, dusky vibe. You have to get eight minutes in before you hear any vocals. Even then, the voices are as much an instrument as anything, a means of providing the close harmonies that immediately sound familiar and inviting. Likewise, Gibson’s and McBide’s decision to record only with vintage analog equipment, though hardly a novel approach, lends an air of rustic authenticity.
Opener “Clinging to the Almost” is probably the album’s best showcase of what Bell Gardens are about and what they are capable of. It opens with a lilting trumpet fanfare that fades into a thoughtful arpeggio played by what sounds like a distorted dobro accompanied by eerie feedback effects. Eventually, the rhythm section comes in with a woozy, two-chord sequence, only to be usurped by swooning strings and Mellotron. It’s a beautiful passage in an album that has more than a few to go around. But then it stops, mid-song. A droning, fuzzy piano comes out of the ether, and it is absolutely chilling, terrifying even. This is when you first get a taste of Gibson’s and McBride’s two-part harmonies. It’s like a choir in a haunted church.
Before you can get too spooked, though, “Different Tonight” starts up with more of an embracing, White Album piano vibe. Though it stretches out over seven minutes, the track plays out like a psychedelic pop song along the lines of latter-day Mercury Rev or Polyphonic Spree, complete with a triumphant refrain. The reverb-soaked, Spectorian “Nowhere” and shimmering, mirage-like “South” provide more hummable moments.
Consider the detailed, considerate production, sunset-over-the-desert arrangements, and those honeyed harmonies, and you have a beguiling if hardly groundbreaking package. Yet something is wrong. Something is missing, and the more you listen, the more attuned you become to what’s missing. As alternately pretty and spine-tingling as it may be, Full Sundown Assembly is an album whose impact never goes deeper than the ascetics of its creation and recording. In other words, it comes across as more an exercise than a collection of songs, more something that was created under a microscope than breathed out by humans with real emotions. It lacks the wide-eyed wonder, even joy, that influences like Wilson, Spector, and Dylan could transmit. The one song that envisions such a vibe, “Through the Rain”, is undone by inane lyrics, anesthetized vocals, and general drippiness.
Such an over-controlled environment may not be surprising when you consider McBride plays with the instrumental drone outfit Stars of the Lid and Gibson has been recording abstract, cerebral techno under then name apendics. Shuffle. Even so, the album’s other bookend, “To Land”, manages to project empathy and genuine melancholy via a gorgeous concoction of strings, pedal steel, and piano, sending Full Sundown Academy off on a note that suggests a promising band who might yet put more heart behind their mastery of the studio.