[5 April 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
On Venice is Sinking’s debut album, Sorry About the Flowers, the band showed us just how intricate pop music can be. It seemed basic enough, with its hushed melodies and immediate hooks. But the mesh of keys and horns, the careful execution of vocal harmonies, and the right amount of muscle—that made some of the record approach a power-pop energy—culminated in a sound that seemed familiar, but with that extra thing, that synergy particular to these players, that made it new.
And now, back with their sophomore album AZAR, they have outdone themselves in every way. The simple pop bases to the orchestration on their first album are out the window and replaced with a much headier mix of melancholy atmosphere and intricate, slow-building compositions. It isn’t that these songs aren’t as immediate as their predecessors, just that the emotions they hit upon, and the melodies they use to get to them, run deeper and with just a little more tangle to them. Where Dan Lawson and Karolyn Troupe sounded like unassuming but strong voices before, now they sound even more confidently restrained. And the band as a whole has concentrated their strengths and, as a result, has managed to make a much larger sound.
It wouldn’t be accurate, though, to say that Venice is Sinking has settled into their sound, because there is nothing settled about AZAR. From the opening track—one of four instrumental pieces on the record, all called “Azar”—it is clear that the band will be reaching for some big things on this record. The track grows on quiet fuzzy atmospherics, and introduces the simple melody that will run through all four “Azar” tracks, before soaring to its finish on a foundation of horns, keys, and ringing guitars. It is big-sounding, for sure, but its parts are spare, all tightly contained. The song also stops short of completely unraveling. Like much of the album, it builds to the breaking point and then recedes. Only to give way to the first of many great tracks, “Ryan’s Song”.
This song, the first single from the record, immediately taps into the growth in Venice is Sinking’s sound. Lawson and Troupe sing a hushed glide over a track that sounds airy and light, until you notice the interplay of a clean guitar riff with a thumping, chopped-up bass line providing the song with some subtle muscle. Lay all this over some airtight drumming and you’ve got a brilliantly put together song, full of emotion without being strident, and lofty in its size and sound without being too unruly or cerebral. “Nothing more, nothing less,” Lawson and Troupe sing on the refrain, and it feels like a statement about the album, even if its not.
“Ryan’s Song” is just the first wonderfully-balanced and bittersweet songs on an album full of them. “Wetlands Dancehall” sounds at first like a typical blue-light ballad, a perfect slow dance number, until you notice the duo’s vocals rise over the music and carry the track, before turning it over to a lush bed of strings. “Okay” has all the immediacy of the catchiest power-pop tune, but earns its infectious sound by building it with patience. The drums wait to full come into the track, guitars and keys let notes cascade a while before shoring them up in chords. It’s the kind of slow-burning expansion you’ll hear all over this album, and in no place is that growing better than on “Young Master Sunshine”.
“Young Master Sunshine” is the perfect hook the rest of the album hang’s on. It starts spare and quiet, spacious and cold. You can picture the breath puffing out of them in the winter night air, as the guitar tangles and stretched notes over spare percussion. But the song doesn’t settle for that solitary quiet, it swells with horns, the drums pick up a little steam, and an acoustic guitar comes in to fill up all the space. As it grows to full size, the song becomes something epic and dreamy, something that ripples out at the edges. It reaches back and bleeds into the songs you’ve already heard, and sets you on a path for the rest of the album.
The four “Azar” pieces may slow this album down a bit, since their barely-there trudge starts to pull down the already slow pace of the album. But overall, AZAR is a wonderful album. Venice is Sinking certainly stay close to the orchestral pop sound they established on Sorry About the Flowers, but they expand upon it here, and take some interesting risks, with beautiful results. It’s might not be your driving-around, blare-the-car-stereo album this spring and summer, but it just might become your early-evening, front-porch, soaking-in-the-sunset soundtrack.