Melancholia reigns supreme on the sophomore effort from three-piece, Massachusetts-based, chamber pop band Gem Club. Following the trio’s striking 2011 debut Breakers, In Roses builds upon the gorgeous minimalism of its predecessor, which consisted of little more than cello, piano and Christopher Barnes’ quivering tenor. Nostalgia for an idealized, rose-colored past, regret for relationships that never quite yielded a happy ending, and a paper-thin emotional fragility loom heavily over the proceedings, yet there’s beauty at the dour core of it all.
The heart-rending “252” and the haunting opener “Twins”, from the group’s first full length album, were so perfectly executed and raw in their unembellished delivery, that the addition of woodwinds, brass instruments and a string section wasn’t entirely unwelcome this time around, just inessential. The inclusion of conductor/arranger Minna Choi and the Magik*Magik Orchestra (How to Dress Well, Zola Jesus) doesn’t always elevate the music of In Roses to loftier heights and the additional instrumentation sometimes seems superfluous. Nevertheless, it’s a successful progression of sound and thankfully, nothing tips the scale over into the territory of excess. One listen to the stunning fourth track “Hypericum” and it’s clear that they haven’t lost the ability to deliver elegantly personal, powerful songs.
Barnes is one of those rare musicians in this day in age, who understands the power of truly letting his compositions breathe. Uncluttered, yet widescreen in scope, the nine songs off the Boston trio’s debut were a perfect example of music that needed little pomp and circumstance to thrive. In this instance, the saying “less is more” would be completely dead on to describe that record. The sophomore album only builds on that strength, continuing to adorn these plaintive, pianistic songs with the cello of Kristin Drymala and the percussion and complementary vocals of Ieva Berberian, who both made Breakers so devastatingly lovely.
In the accompanying Hardly Art press release, Barnes discusses the approach and inspiration for the subject matter taken into consideration this time around. “Whereas Breakers was more about the body and inward-gazing, the new album is about me looking out on relationships I’ve had or wish I’ve had.” The lyrics confront “the crashing realization that lives are no longer happening the way we want.” A sense of loss pervades the entire record and the songs of In Roses seem like little elegies for idols, memories and loved ones.
Barnes is less a lyricist and more a poet who paints sound upon his written canvas. As it is stands, the subject matter of the songs, often could be open to interpretation. Some are more obvious. “Michael” waxes on a love lost to a cautious heart and “Soft Season” is an ode to the death and the life of early ‘90s, HIV postive, gay adult film star Joey Stefano, who subsequently died of “multiple drug intoxication” (a speedball overdose of cocaine, morphine, heroin, and ketamine) according to his death certificate, at the La Brea Motel on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. Closing seven-minute track “Polly” seems like a mournful prayer, as Barnes’ calls out to his late aunt and reminisces on what was lost and never discussed. He needs her support and wants to speak with her now, but she is gone. There’s little avoiding the fact that the content of the album isn’t exactly sun-drenched, but that doesn’t take away the quiet splendor of it all once it washes over the listener a few times.
Only four of the songs, “First Weeks”, “Speech of Foxes”, “Braid” and “Polly” incorporate the newly orchestral sound, with drums and percussion appearing on three of the tracks and the church choir-like voices of “Idea For Strings” poignantly absorbed into the band’s evolving sound. The latter is so oppressively sad with its wall of detached wordless vocals, that you actually feel the weight of the accompanying disillusioned lyrics. The following track “Soft Season” harkens back to the hushed delicacy of their debut. The instruments surrounding Barnes’ vocals lend a feel of hopeless despondency to the song, and it’s in these desolate moments that Minna Choi’s arrangements lift Barnes’ skeletal melodies to divine proportions. One thing remains consistent between Breakers and In Roses, every calculated note, melody and lyrical phrase capture the emotional intimacy of a moment. That’s not exactly a common quality to be found in most modern music.
In an field dominated by emotive, softly sung indie vocalists, Barnes and company have created something uniquely, intensely personal within two albums. Some might deem these blue-hued songs the ideal background music to accompany a suicidal act, and listening to In Roses when one is depressed, probably isn’t a great idea. That aside, somehow though, slender rays of light appear in the overwhelming darkness throughout these eleven songs, and each revisit unveils additional depth.
As he mentions in the song “Marathon (In Roses)”, “I’m in roses. All that I want is to remain.” It’s clear Barnes doesn’t want to revel in the morose forever, even if the gloom provides him creative inspiration. His voice may not display a particularly wide range, but songs this delicate don’t call for bombastic histrionics. In that sense, it’s the perfect companion for his sublime compositions. These are intimate bedroom ballads of the highest order, music that embodies the bleak essence of a snowy day, rain streaming down a window pane or cloudless grey skies. In other words, the perfect soundtrack for this cold, winter season. In Roses is a reminder that sometimes the gloom is a comforting, cathartic place to dwell.
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