[15 September 2009]
On 2007’s Scribble Mural Comic Journal, Philadelphia’s A Sunny Day in Glasgow blossomed into a formidable talent wielding their own tweaked strand of shoegaze/dream-pop. It is a feat all the more impressive given that those are two seemingly exhausted genres. Their particular strand nods as much to usual suspects like My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins as it does to current psych-dabbling electronic acts like High Places, Caribou, and Four Tet. The songs on Scribble Mural Comic Journal were simultaneously diaphanous and dense with sound without ever feeling formless or grating. The band continues this delicate balancing act on Ashes Grammar, although with less success.
The core of A Sunny Day in Glasgow consists of a few family members: Ben, Robin and Lauren Daniels. Ben is the band’s main songwriter and de facto leader. Twin sisters Robin and Lauren provide the ethereal vocals. On a side note, this draws a pretty obvious parallel to fellow shoegazers School of Seven Bells, who are co-fronted by twin sisters Claudia and Alejandra Deheza. Unfortunately, Robin and Lauren were both sidelined during the recording of Ashes Grammar for various reasons, and two equally lovely vocalists filled in for them: Annie Fredrickson and Beverly Science (best name ever).
Before delving into the substance of Ashes Grammar, there are two near-fatal strikes against it that must be addressed. First, the album clocks in at one hour and is 22 tracks long. I don’t have too much of an issue with the running time, but 22 tracks? For a double album, that might be acceptable. For a single album, it’s absolutely unnecessary. Secondly, about a third of the album’s 22 tracks are instrumental interludes. Before I heard a second of Ashes Grammar, I already knew it was in dire need of some pruning. Listening to an album from beginning to end should not feel like an endurance test.
While there are many indisputable highlights to be found on Ashes Grammar, it can be a chore to find them. “Failure” is easily the best song on the album, and it sticks out among all the clattering gauzescapes like a sore thumb. The stacks of tumbling percussion and synth whoops make the refrain of “fall forward/feel failure” sound positively triumphant. With its galloping rhythm and breathy, cooed vocals, “Close Chorus” unspools like a mash-up of My Bloody Valentine’s “Blown a Wish” and “Soon”. Meanwhile, the churning, black-lit psychedelia of “Nitetime Rainbows” displays the band’s knack for song-title-as-apt-descriptor.
Another issue adding to the drag of the album is the lack of any serious tempo variation from song to song. All of Ashes Grammar’s 22 tracks hover in the mid-tempo range. While this definitely gives the album cohesion and flow, it also becomes tedious and exhausting when you have no clue where one song ends and another begins. The band released “Ashes Grammar” and “Ashes Maths” as a single MP3 song/download to initially promote the album, and that only serves to illustrate my point: you’d probably have no idea you were listening to two separate songs if it hadn’t been pointed out to you.
Ultimately, Ashes Grammar is more about a sustained mood or experience than about actual songcraft, but, as I stated earlier, A Sunny Day in Glasgow has already proven themselves capable of penning fantastic songs. Sadly, that proof is much more available on Scribble Mural Comic Journal than on Ashes Grammar. Even though Ashes Grammar is a slight stumble for them, I have no doubt that a band with such obvious potential will be back with an impressively honed follow-up.