Albert Menduno has had some time off in order to contemplate life and basically give himself a well-deserved rest. Working with bands on the East and West coasts, Menduno started A-Set in 1998 as a lo-fi band with a big idea. Now, back in “the windy city”, the founder of A-Set is back with more of the simple, barren, and brilliantly naked tunes that endeared him the first time around to various critics and their subsequent acclaim. The baker’s dozen tunes begin with “Flight Path” and starts as if you’re in an open field with planes overheard. It’s that same vast sense of space that Menduno plays with time and again. According to the press kit, Menduno “speaks of poets and times long lost ”, and for the initial instrumental scene-setter, that’s dead on. However, the up-tempo and quasi-funk “In Too Deep” sounds like Brandon Boyd of Incubus fronting the Talking Heads. It’s a decent attempt at melodic college rock, but Menduno’s timbre probably won’t resonate with everybody. Another good comparison might be early Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust. “He dreams that it’s there but all roads must lead out of here”, he sings as the accompanying musicians assist him.
A haunting “Tennessee Sunset” works much better, again recalling Bowie in his softest, tender times but also recalling Hawksley Workman or, to a lesser extent, Everlast in certain areas. It’s a dense and dreary tune that asks, “Will you ever take me back? / Will you ever let me go?” Menduno doesn’t let the cello or strings get too much in the way, thankfully, allowing his vocals to dominate the tune. The conclusion gets into a catchy yet quirky pop mold, slowly building with each instrument before dying out again. “Nine One One” veers into the middle Americana roots crate and glides along to near perfection. The guitar riffs slowly but surely take the tune over, sort of like an early Wilco. Just as soothing is the softer, organ-riddled “Two of Hearts” that tries to come off as grandiose but excels just by keeping everything relatively simple.
One thing the listener notices is that there is very little cohesiveness on the album. You’re not going to get a concept album with A-Set, just a series of songs that most will take and some will leave. A perfect example of this is “Escape”, which goes into a Southern-fried rock style without the massive guitars or twang. “What are we going to do? Oh yes it’s true my heart was stuck on you”, Menduno sings before the ditty peters out in a wimpy manner. Perhaps the hardest or edgiest track presented is “Run with Me”, which sounds like Everclear if fronted by the Thin White Duke. Josh Richter provides delayed harmonies to great effect while the bridge gets heavier. But whatever momentum or oomph A-Set tries to push into the next track hits a wall. A great big freakin’ wall! “Alone He Stood” is a shambles, with an odd guitar riff, a jazz-like drumming approach, and lyrics that don’t quite meld with the arrangement. That it continues on and ends up being one of the longer songs here is almost to the point of embarrassing.
Just as odd is the reggae texture coloring “Just Say the Word”. Here Menduno gets deep into the groove but doesn’t quite get into the tight, highbrow pop other bands like XTC might take to the next level. Fortunately, when A-Set is soulful they are routinely stellar. This is especially true on the slow and downbeat “Where Your Home Is”, which sounds like an early Dr. John minus the Cajun or Bayou accents. The female harmonies from Typhanie Monique are another key ingredient to the song’s overall success. Wrapping up with “Afandi’s Song”, this “rock record” is great when it’s good, but so-so when it’s, well, so-so. More like a B-set from the A-Set.