[19 September 2005]
Shhh. Try not to shift your weight; the floorboards are creaking. Don’t talk at a normal volume. Don’t sing along unless the spirit of Jesus compels you. I know it’s catchy, but don’t sing along. I’m trying to hear the band. Refrain from snapping your fingers or clapping your hands. It’s nothing personal. They’re kind of quiet. It’s the American Analog Set. No, of course they have a drummer, but he’s using brushes. Yes, exactly like Dave Grohl during Nirvana’s Unplugged concert. I’m a little embarrassed. I think the singer is giving me the stink eye. The drummer’s giving me the stink eye, too. Look, if you really want to continue this conversation we’re going to have to write our words on paper. But make sure the pen’s quiet. And that the paper doesn’t crinkle.
The American Analog Set are the indie rock equivalent of a stage whisper. You know that it’s supposed to be quiet in relation to everything else, but the volume is still almost normal thanks to microphones and good acoustics. The vocals are gently sung and barely there. The drums are sometimes fast-paced but brushed lightly. The guitars are mostly acoustic and spare. Often the guitars are used for nothing more than a one- or two-string riff repeated for the duration of the song. The band’s so quiet that they don’t even provide the song titles anywhere in the packaging. All we get are 12 minute/second durations listed on either side of a key that was clearly used to unlock the handcuffs on the front cover. I had to rely on the Web just to know the names of the songs. Song titles are not something I enjoy working to figure out.
That being said, there’s absolutely nothing unpleasant on The American Analog Set’s new album. Set Free is an entire disc of quiet, gentle, and pleasant music. So why do I feel that I was somehow cheated by it. Well, first of all, there are the instrumentals. While technically featuring instruments and no vocals, making them the dictionary definition of instrumentals, the songs feel like regular songs with the vocal track erased instead of standalone products. “Immaculate Heart II” desperately needs a melody. “(Theme From) Everything Ends” suffers from the same malady. Second of all are the slower songs. The one cover included, “Jr” by the band Codeine, stops the momentum of the album dead (and I mean dead) in its tracks. “Play Hurt” keeps the listener in the same slow, gloomy rut. While earlier tracks managed to sound beautiful and slow, these two tracks just sound boring. Amanset are already testing the audience with their volume level, so they need to be even more careful with their tempos.
These problems don’t hinder most of the songs. “Born on the Cusp” is an amazing album opener. It’s simple but effective, featuring a verse melody that evolves into something slightly different by the third time around. The chorus almost gets heavy. “Heavy” as in heavy metal, not “heavy” as in depressing. The effect comes from a second guitar pumping out power chords, contrasting with soft tinkles of a xylophone or something else, possibly electronic, that sounds a bit like a xylophone. “Immaculate Heart I” doesn’t lose steam until the end, when the vocals leave the mix. “Cool Kids Keep” is bolstered by its killer melody. The coda is “the cooler kids will live forever”, but it’s unclear if the band are the cool kids, or if they hate the cool kids and their clique mentality.
“She’s Half” is a gorgeous waltz with breathy backing vocals and jingle bells. It would be a perfect song if it stopped a minute and a half earlier. Four out of the first five songs are greatest hits compilation worthy. But the song pattern grows tiresome with the instrumentals and others. “Sharp Briar” is the ascending scale cousin to the descending scale included on “Immaculate Heart I”. It was the better the first time around. Other songs sound equally cannibalized, but Set Free is redeemed by its final two songs, the catchy “First of Four” and the persistently ethereal, but oddly titled, “Fuck This… I’m Leaving”. “Fuck This” even has some electric guitars. We’re told to “Do what your dad don’t say you should / Do what good girls don’t do good”. It sounds almost as if my sexual services are being called upon, but the surrounding lyrics don’t clarify.
The American Analog Set have discovered what they do well: brief, general lyrics that vaguely allude to people and stuff (junk like that) backed by whispered vocals and simple instrumentation. The vagueness, however, is distracting at times, and the gentle pace often leads to tedium. The band could use some clearer lyrics and a stronger focus. And leave the instrumentals to groups with more than two prominent instruments. That’d also be appreciated.