[2 September 2008]
You know the Silent Years are still an underground band, if only because they don’t have a Wikipedia page yet. That’s okay – the website’s no paragon of legitimacy, everyone knows – but it just goes to show that there are still worthy groups out there to legitimately “discover”. It is a bit sad that the Silent Years still need to be discovered. Their 2006 self-titled debut was acutely observed, and it demonstrated an impressive mastery of inventive indie pop songwriting.
The Silent Years was certainly liberal with arrangements and textures. You could have argued that the band hadn’t completely found its voice. And its sophomore album, The Globe, is similarly large-scale. From the complex, shifting percussive figures of “Ropes” to the whooping, rock guitar-driven enthusiasm of “The World’s Worst Birthday Gift” and the harp-and-horns strum of “Pay it Back”, the band’s again playing in familiar indie rock territory. But as the group matures, this heterogeneous approach to songwriting is starting to feel more like a coherent style. It’s not like there’s some strong unifier – vocalist Josh Epstein is confident but with a relatively generic high-baritone range, which could have been honed in a cappella groups in college (it’s got that slipping, pure tonality).
Again, the Silent Years sound familiar and unplaceable. Occasionally they share Dappled Cities’ gusto, and at other times they’ve got the quirky, inviting quality of Alan Wilkis’ soul-fed charisma. But it’s part of the group’s success that, when you’re listening to it, you never really identify strong comparisons – you’re too busy just enjoying the music. There’s plenty to enjoy. Though the band’s quite comfortable beefing up its sound with driving guitar chords, it’s most immediately appealing (and in fact most inventive) in more relaxed moments. This smart and literate pop, as when Epstein describes patching up the holes in his life with chewing gum on “Black Hole”, interrupts itself to explore subtle atonalities at the edges. If this is a kind of existentialism undermining the simplicity of the melodies, it’s entirely successful: the album is at once in complete wonder at the natural world and filled with unease about the way we fit in there.
Songs like “Goddamn You!” take the inflexions and intonations of pop music and twist them into something much more interesting. The tinkling background and the droning strings together seem to say, “We’re not completely sure about it, but don’t you think this sounds great?” The group’s not as subtle or as self-consciously inventive as someone like Pas/Cal – “The Sun is Alive”, for example, emphasizes its exploration of the natural world with bird chirping and what sound like field recordings. The music may be fairly immediate, but the songwriting’s good enough to support it.
Maybe the most pleasurable part of listening to the Silent Years is their casually sophisticated wordplay. An early highlight, “On Our Way Back Home”, begins as a jettisoning – “On our way back home / We realised we had just become big embarrassments” – and ends up all “Adventures In Solitude” – “Everyone is in us / Everyone you’ve ever known is here”. It’s sweet and folky and undeniable. Similarly, the continued tripping syncopations over “invevitability” in “Black Hole” lend the word a special resonance. “I’m trying to escape inevitability,” Epstein repeats – but guess what? He can’t.
The Silent Years have effectively built on the easy pop of their debut to create something almost equally appealing, and with a depth greater than their swift-shifting tempi and timbres. They still project an appealing DIY aesthetic, and for the moment at least, they could legitimately be that underground band you’re ahead of the curve in loving. The group deserves more praise for its perceptive songwriting and – really – the appealing pop choruses it seems able to conjure at will. If you believe in such a thing as meritocracy in music’s capricious finger of popularity, look out (again) for the Silent Years.