[11 August 2003]
American Analog Set are a band who seem to be surrounded by contradictions, even oxymorons. Take their name: sure, they’re Americans—from Texas, no less—but they sure don’t sound Texan (or, with their echoes of Stereolab, barely even American at times). By association, “analog” suggests its opposite, “digital”, and although they prefer recording onto analog tape, their music is suffused with electronic keyboard sounds. And bands that refer to themselves as “sets” generally reside at the jazzier end of the spectrum, territory into which AmAnSet most definitely don’t venture. What they do play, however, is a kind of textured post-pop that is surprisingly emotional in its impact.
But let’s try some more antonymic word play. Audaciously understated. Languidly focused. Lazily tight. Patiently intense. Lovably bitter. The contradictions that lie at the heart of all of these sophisms hint at this music’s appeal; matter collides with antimatter, producing not icy negation, but a kind of fuzzy warmth.
Promise of Love is a break-up record, hence its toning down of the more confectionary pop found on its 2001 predecessor Know by Heart. The returned love letter on the cover is initially difficult to make out, but once discerned, the theme of betrayed amore is impossible to ignore. And yet it’s still a pop offering, with perhaps a little salt to offset the sugar.
The opening song, the delightfully named “Continuous Hit Music”, is a curve ball in this sense. There is little indication of the slightly jaded and lovelorn weariness-vying-with-passion to come. Most of the song is gone before those whispery regretful vocals intrude, gone on a slow-built metronomic beat, and a wheezing calliope organ sound that pitch shifts like some warped, elliptical carousel. A guitar also drones, but in a higher register, and when the bass and second guitar come in, the effect is unexpectedly loud and pulse-quickening, as if all that multi-level droning is finding its own analog in the rhythms of our veins.
Mellifluous electric piano washes and warm, deep pizzicato guitars frame “Hard to Find”, which swings hammock-freely while introducing us to the “older and jaded” conceit at the heart of the album. A chiming xylophone manages to sound angelic but not ethereal, somehow, grounded as it is in the compelling rhythmic sway. Yet there remains a disconnect between the lyrics and the sounds, helpless cold meeting hopeful warmth.
Yearning emotionality leaks from every pore and tear duct of the record’s finest track, the awkwardly titled “Come Home Baby Julie, Come Home”. Breaking no new rhythmic ground, the song nonetheless features sublimely subtle hooks and a slow glowing flush that almost makes the human voice superfluous. When the song appears to collapse into an untimely xylophone-splashed surrender, the sudden explosive re-entry into a honey-filled pool is exhilarating, a gorgeous hoarse ache.
As much as it might initially appear to be homogenously predictable, in its low/mid tempo lilt and butterscotch guitar/keyboard layers, Promise of Love has a surprise waiting. After four consecutive rhythmically and sonically similar songs, a mutant left-field trio (“Promise of Love”, “The Hatist”, and “Fool Around”) abruptly detach themselves with marionette jerkiness, like adolescents asserting their independence. The effect is somewhere between startlingly jarring and refreshingly welcome. Of the three, “The Hatist” is the most accomplished and distinct. Muted popcorn guitar work (reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie, or even fellow Texans Spoon) and tight crisp stick play distinguish it. The title song is robotic and pounding yet not fully realized, while “Fool Around” strays a little too close to math rock and smartass wordplay to be a total success (although it’s as close a brush with real, raw anger as the band is willing to risk here, with its guitars struck with genuine ferocity and its lyrical disgust toward the treacherous impermanence of the human heart).
The closing song, “Modern Drummer”, is ambitious. It doesn’t completely work, but props for trying. Cellos and (later) more strings certainly add new texture to the familiar guitars, keys, and xylophones of this eight-minute plodder, but more significant is the collapse into crackles and hiss at the end. Like a record stuck in its run-off groove, or an old grandfather clock ticking hollowly in a room long since deserted by its ancient denizens, the record appears to descend into pointless discordant ennui. Only it doesn’t, at least not yet. There’s a hidden coda, sounding like someone hit Record on some crappy old boombox, basically a lo-fi scrap torn from album opener “Continuous Hit Music”, in which a strummed acoustic guitar accompanies Andrew Kenny’s weary sighs, and we realize that first song was not so anomalous after all. The sadness and resignation have come full circle, albeit largely on pretty wings, and AmAnSet bow out to the sound of clumsy fingers fumbling to find the Stop button on someone’s cheap-ass cassette player.
Perhaps the greatest anomaly surrounding American Analog Set is how limited an impact they seem to have made. Sure they’re a fair sized indie rock band in an overly large pool. Yet after five consistently engaging full lengths, one singles collection, and a couple of EPs, their profile has barely changed. They excite neither damning censure nor glittering accolades. They may not aim to change the world, but it couldn’t hurt if a few more people were exposed to music as subtly accomplished as that found on Promise of Love. Even if only to be convinced that we needn’t necessarily be alone when nursing our occasional wounds of love.