Unlike New York’s hipster posterboys The Rapture, On!Air!Library! don’t just copy an old ‘80s band’s sound and pass it off as cool. Like The Walkmen and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they’re looking to take vintage, pre-1990 sounds and build on them, to try to take it somewhere new, or at least, remotely interesting. Taking their name from the title of an African radio show whose host read books on the air, the trio, consisting of identical twins Alley and Claudia Deheza and Phillip Wann, have emerged as one of the braver, yet more accessible New York bands to come out in recent years.
Specializing early in their career on strictly atmospheric pop, they take a bold step forward on their self-titled, full-length debut album, which was recorded both at Wann’s home and in an actual studio with producers Aaron Shoblaske and Steve Rivette (producer of The Liars’ much-lauded They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top). The result, as is often the case with a band’s first album, is an ambitious mishmash of musical styles; it wavers from time to time, but to their credit, the record never derails.
The album’s especially interesting when you hear it the first time, as you have no idea what direction they’ll head in next, and the first two tracks alone show there’s a lot in store for the 37-minute duration. As “Faultered Ego” begins with a guitar intro that sounds both chiming and angular, you wonder if the song will take off in a more artsy, noise rock direction, but stuttering, laptop style drum beats kick in, followed by second guitar that repeats the main riff, bass, mellotron, and live drums (performed by Interpol’s Sam Fogarino), and when all six elements get going, you’re lost in cacophonous, yet entrancing waves of sound that, despite the harsh tones and jarring beats, evoke a strong dreampop quality. When the female vocals come in (both Alley and Claudia sing, but it’s never specified who sings on which song), the dreampop influence shows itself again, as the lyrics are both mumbled and distorted (like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, the vocals serve more of an instrumental purpose, with lyrical interpretation taking a backseat). The song smoothly segues into “Fell to Earth”, an equally ethereal, but more overtly electronic song, with backwards cymbal effects and droning guitars adding to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, it lacks the impact of the previous track, coming off as an empty exercise in post rock.
On!Air!Library! quickly redeem themselves on “Bread”, a light, pop-infused song that has Claudia and Alley singing different lines simultaneously, their voices propelled by some powerful drumming by Boggs member Brad Conroy. The lyrics are still impenetrable (“Shaking in your bones is required/ To dream up a colossal empire”), but the interplay between the two singers is hypnotic. “I95”, a spare, forlorn ballad with minimal keyboard chords, and Wann’s pretty “Sad Sad Zoo”, a shamelessly romantic song in both lyrical content (“All the stars washed out by the city lights… You still burn up the night time sky”) and in Wann’s quiet, Ira Kaplan-like delivery, practically shimmer. Meanwhile, the noisy “Bambalance” is an example of post rock/electronic experimentation that works very well, the trio sounding their most energetic, and the reflective “Spaghetti Western Superstar” is another mellow song sung by Wann that has a close similarity to Yo La Tengo, circa 1997. The band saves their best for last, as the closing track “Feb.” is a simple, two minute piece of Velvet Underground style romanticism, the chanteuse style vocals sounding their clearest, the drumming and guitar playing their most insistent. It’s a fleeting moment of wide-eyed magic that has you contemplating just how good this band can be.
If you grew up listening to college rock in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and heard this album, you’d immediately think that On!Air!Library! would have been a perfect fit on the legendary 4AD label alongside such bands as Lush, Throwing Muses, and His Name is Alive, putting out albums with gorgeous cover art by Vaughan Oliver. Skillfully veering into electronic and acoustic, art rock and indie pop, On!Air!Library! shows remarkable versatility on their first album. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be regarded as one of their city’s finest musical exports.