Grand Archives, Mat Brooke’s latest project, has little in common with his old bands. As a former member of Band of Horses and Carissa’s Weird, Brooke is no stranger to indie rock of the somber and sad-bastard variety. And with the debut album from Grand Archives, he seems bent on leaving that behind. Where those bands dealt in melancholy, even if it could be of a comforting variety, Grand Archives is all big, blissful sounds and hope.
Brooke’s new project mines more dream-pop influences, not to mention the haze of ‘70s California pop, to craft a sound that is shiny and expansive. “Torn Blue Foam Couch” announces the band’s intentions right away, as the song fills a room with multi-part harmonies and plucked strings, before introducing churning guitars and far-off drums that eventually mesh themselves full-on into the track. Clearly, Brooke and company spent time making songs thick with layers and atmosphere, and the songs are imbued with hope both sonic and lyric.
Of course, this is not all totally out of the blue. The haze of these songs still owes something to Brooke’s time with the reverb-happy fellas of Band of Horses. And while Grand Archives’ bliss seems a direct counterpoint to the dreary space of Carissa’s Weird, the elements used to get there—the echoed guitars and haunting vocals, in particular—are awfully similar. But when Grand Archives turn these elements towards something closer to happiness, it is often effective, and not without risking failure.
Where some of these elements are carefully crafted and nuanced, sometimes the band risks schmaltz. “Miniature Birds” starts off with carefree whistling and, coupled with bright harmonica, sounds initially like bland sunny-day folk. But as the song goes, it adds layers. There are horns, the subtle crash of carefully played drums, Brooke’s own honeyed vocals, and a chorus that rises above the song’s simple elements to give us a song that ends up much stronger than its start.
And while most of the record rests on pop music, there are more rock band elements on the record, moments that recall Brooke’s days in Band of Horses in particular. “Swan Matches” wouldn’t seem too out of place on Band of Horses’ Cease to Begin, as it has a similar, late night quiet to it. But Brooke’s takes it in his more wistful direction, making it not only his, but a strong derivation on his former band’s sound. “Index Moon” packs the most weight into its guitars, and is the loudest track by default, but the vocals remain sweet, and the song relies more on melody than pure strength.
And that switch is what the success of Grand Archives hinges on. “Index Moon” shifts from rock song to bliss-pop, but the shift is too much, the chorus too over-the-top, and it shifts into something too cheesy to be effective. “A Setting Son” lacks the layers other songs have, making the high register of the vocals fey and untethered. “The Crime Window” is a fun attempt at a rocking sing-along, but set within an album of internal and thoughtful tracks, it sounds too goofy.
But this is what can make happy records so difficult to pull off. Where sad records can slip into self-indulgent whining, the hope of upbeat records can slip into cheese and empty sentiment. When Grand Archives is most effective, Brooke treats happiness like the complicated, difficult to attain and understand thing that it is, and the sonic palette supports that complication. But when that palette breaks down, Brooke’s thoughtful songs sound puffed up with air, and end up floating away from the more solid parts of the record. Grand Archives is an ambitious statement for a guy trying something new pretty far into his musical life, and its got enough going for it to hint at a greatness this band could achieve. They’ve got all the elements; they just need to find the right balance for them. And then we can join them in all of their blissful-pop joys, instead of just dabbling.
// Notes from the Road
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