[7 April 2006]
I’ve always had a thing for Young People. From the moment I first heard them, I was drawn into their utterly idiosyncratic sound. It sure didn’t hurt that their frontwoman was completely crush-worthy, or that their music played directly to my most elitist affinities. Equal parts Carter Family, Sonic Youth, and Nina Simone, they struck me as a new breed of Americana, bridging Appalachian to the avant-garde and touching on any number of influences in between. I quickly collected what little output the burgeoning band had recorded and anxiously awaited their next album.
Regrettably that ardent dedication isn’t entirely rewarded with All at Once. While the album retains many of the same characteristics that made the band so alluring at the start, it never approaches the same standard set by their prior work. That makes for an album that is still strong in theory albeit not all that enjoyable.
Understanding what makes All at Once so disappointing requires some review of where the band has been leading up to this release. Released in 2002, their self-titled debut was strikingly exciting. Not quite alt-country, not entirely indie, and almost noise, they emerged as a band unlike any other. The following year brought War Prayers, which bolstered their initial approach with indelibly haunting hooks. Their signature experimentalism was punctuated with deceptively catchy pop that passed by unassumingly only to prove unshakeable. That album also increased the expansiveness of their influences incorporating instances of big band, jazz, and outright rock. Vocalist Katie Eastburn grew increasingly sultry as well, arriving at a sound something like the spirit of Patsy Cline emanating from the body of Bjork. With two solid albums behind them and a trajectory aimed upward, expectations escalated.
All at Once proves to be not so much a deviation from what made those other albums so great as much as it is just a poorer execution of those same principles. Pop and noise still intersect into abstract structures but neither component is as compelling. The hooks are entirely absent and the noise seems somewhat pedestrian. As before, a Spartan sense of minimalism defines the work but here it sounds more unfinished than intentional. The increasingly encompassing nature of their invocations is narrowed as well. The country influence is almost entirely extricated while the jazz and avant-garde impulses prove rather rote. The end result is a series of repetitive redundancies introducing themselves abruptly and departing after two to three minutes of entirely too little inspiration.
Still some songs are more successful than others. “Forget” approaches some kind of hook before being done in with redundancy. “Dark Rainbow” proves more dynamic and “Slow Moving Storm” hints at the unpredictability of the past couple records. All throughout, Katie Eastburn is a little less unhinged than before but still subtly intoxicating. She may not be as engaging but she’s still pretty pleasing and probably just as cute.
Those signs of vitality suggest that All at Once is far from unrecoverable. There are almost as many great ideas on abounding across this record as on any prior album form the band. It’s just that this time their execution left a lot to be desired. That leaves Young People still hinting at some kind of grander greatness. Unfortunately All at Once has the band taking one step farther from that goal rather than another closer to it.