When Pavement released its swan song Terror Twilight in 1999, member Bob Nastanovich explained the title as a reference to “the short span between sunset and dusk, [which is] considered the most dangerous time in traffic, because half of the people switch on the headlights, and the other half [don’t]. It’s when most accidents happen.” If that’s the case, then I imagine that the “civil twilight” which Michigan quartet Auburn Lull refers to in the title of its new album would be something much less threatening: a time of night when the streets are empty and free of danger, and people’s minds are occupied by dreams and/or reflections. This is because Auburn Lull’s music is sonic Calgon, guaranteed to take any listener away to a more soothing state of mind.
Shoegaze, initially derided by journalists as “the scene that celebrates itself,” is just as self-referential a subgenre now as it was two decades ago, when many of its most influential bands were near their artistic peaks. It’s difficult to talk about any current guitar-based group that creates loud, heavily textured walls of sound without making comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, Ride or Slowdive. However, Auburn Lull has slowly (and I do mean slowly – Begin Civil Twilight is only their third album in a decade) developed a distinct take on the subgenre, one that still bears the imprints of its influences, but synthesizes them in ways that no other shoegaze band can replicate. The band has accomplished this mainly by letting a slight dub influence creep into its music. Of course, you could say the same about Seefeel, but Auburn Lull’s music is slower, and not as reliant on electronics.
Auburn Lull’s arrangements flirt with negative space: instruments drop out mid-song, only to reappear right when the listener gets used to their absence. Bass lines are kept simple, with no more notes than can be counted on a single hand. Second track “Dub 1” is appropriately named: its four-note bass line could’ve been lifted directly from a 30-year-old Jamaican “version,” even though the other instruments don’t play anything close to a “riddim.” On “Civil Twilight”, the bass hovers over the music so heavily that it might as well be a tugboat humming. Still, the music remains shoegaze through and through. The guitars ebb and flow, stripped of their attack so that they sound more like celli (the appearance of an actual cello on two tracks seems almost superfluous), and almost always loud enough to subordinate the drummer’s deceptively complex rhythms. The vocals are buried in enough reverb to render them unintelligible, even when they’re placed at the front of the mix.
Fortunately, Auburn Lull is smart enough to avoid letting themselves fall into a sonic rut. Begin Civil Twilight‘s second half finds them incorporating more noise and dissonance into their music. The percussion on “November’s Long Shadows” has a mechanical quality that conjures up images of trains grinding across tracks. On “Stanfield Echo”, the unplugging of a guitar cable is used repeatedly for percussive effect. Penultimate track “Geneva” is a particularly brilliant piece of sound collage created from the detritus of old technology: the clicking of movie projectors, the white noise of shortwave radios, the warbling pitch of decaying tapes. At no point, though, does the noise upset the music’s general calm. I’d love to hear more of such sonic manipulation on future Auburn Lull albums. In the meantime, Begin Civil Twilight is an excellent album that expands on the band’s previous work just enough to justify the customary long wait between albums.