[29 August 2006]
Anathallo leave me feeling spun off course, removed from my musical axis. This is a good thing. I spend too many of my listening hours firmly grounded, readily pigeonholing, weighing, summarizing, dispensing with, enshrining even. And it’s all so damn easy. It’s second nature to me. A music evaluator is who I am. Perhaps we all are. Gut reactions and hasty selections are how we get through the increasingly bloated madness of daily living. When the first four seconds of a song haven’t grabbed you, switch stations on the radio or forward to the next track or turn the music off. Why not? You’re busy, you’re restless, you’re over-stimulated. There are too many choices that need to be made throughout the course of a day. Evaluate the music and move on.
Okay, but then you miss out on the chance to solve a curious puzzle, like Anathallo’s debut album, Floating World. Oh, hold on a sec. You say you’re game, eh? “Gimme this Anathallo thing, I’ll give it a try. Or, but, wait. What is it again?” You still want some easy answers, and I can’t blame you. I, too, am a busy creature and crave my shortcuts and cue cards. All right, then. Anathallo are an indie rock band. Or an indie pop band. Or maybe they’re a DIY orchestra. For certain, they’re a septet. You can tell, on account of the seven members who comprise this, um, “ragtag ensemble”. (Don’t worry, I won’t use that term again.) What I would like to know is whether or not the musicians in this group are as interpersonally hard to pin down as they are when performing on record. When ordering coffee, do they speak in the language of dreams? Or is this reserved for their shifting and elliptical compositions?
To wit: After a brief, clattering intro, we find one of the album’s unmarred gems, “Genessaret”. Built on fingerpicked acoustic guitars, glockenspiels twinkle, background vocals sigh and sweetly chant, and Matt Joynt sings his tales inspired by the Japanese folktale Hanasakajijii. This parable, contrary to the teachings of Gordon Gekko, shows us that greed is not good. What else isn’t good? The middle section of the track “By Number”, a Prokofiev-like bit of foreboding program music. Anathallo overshoot the mark a fair bit, heavily scoring the trials and tribulations of the old couple in the tale they tell through music and word. Or, sometimes, a track simply falls flat, like the dull “O Hana”. But then they turn right around and render a beauty such as “Hanasakajijii 1”, a pretty, dynamically interesting, and complexly arranged song that Sufjan Stevens would probably have been proud to call his own. At other times, Anathallo’s sound is both more fanciful and rockin’, like a non-seafaring Decemberists. The band are definitely in good company. Unfortunately, the album becomes mired in noodling and mid-20th century, 12-tone, soundtracky dissonance, which lasts throughout the 11-minute tandem of the title track and “Bruised Reed”. Happily, Floating World is then rescued by the final trio of tracks. They make for an understated ending, but the return to musical homeostasis is welcome.
So, did you skip ahead to the end of this review to scan its numerical rating? Did you shrug (physically, emotionally, or maybe even spiritually) and decide to read only this final paragraph, hoping for a succinct wrap-up? Hey, it’s cool. I do it, too. And, in many cases, a given album is uncomplicatedly average-to-good all the way through. Anathallo’s Floating World is not, however, one of those albums. A lone digit doesn’t do justice to its moments of transcendent beauty, when all our many yearnings are lifted and we are transported to the heavenly realm suggested by the record’s title. Nor does that numeral capture how wincingly disappointing the disc’s more overcooked sections are, how very un-floating Anathallo’s pretty world can become. In the same way that knowing the average human IQ is 100 yields little insight into the intelligence of either a Stephen Hawking or a Mike Tyson, the rating below merely collapses the record’s highs and lows into inaccurate mediocrity. You have to spend time (oh, precious time!) with Anathallo’s excellent, awful, and sometimes just fine Floating World in order to sort it all out. The highs will make it worth your while.