Georgia Theatre, in a lot of ways, is the music scene in Athens, Georgia. It’s played host to some of the most important bands to come out of the town — you know, like R.E.M. or Pylon — and it sits right there in downtown at the heart of everything going on. So, that place, with all its history and personality, seemed like a perfect venue for a band like Venice Is Sinking to record their atmospheric, gauzy pop music.
The good news is they did just that in May 2008. The bad news is that the Georgia Theatre burned down in June 2009, leaving in its wake a huge gap in the Athens music scene. Sand & Lines is Venice Is Sinking’s attempt to help out. All proceeds from this release will be donated to the rebuilding of the Georgia Theatre. The band started a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com, and with their help, among others, Georgia Theatre is ready to be rebuilt and owner Wil Greene hopes to have it back open by early 2011.
So, in one way, this record is a love song to the Georgia Theatre, and that distinct place does take up room on the record. The band recorded all the material here live at the theatre, and made no edits or overdubs afterwards. What they played on that stage, live with only two microphones, is what you hear on the record. There’s no audience, just the band and their songs and the space around them, which gives every song an affecting size. You can feel the notes spreading out and up into every inch of space the theatre holds.
With all that space, aside from paying tribute to the venue, Venice Is Sinking do something else that is pretty impressive. On their albums, particularly last year’s AZAR, the band has shown a knack for lush, expansive pop songs that are both immediately melodic and thick with intricate layers. But what sounded like studio polish before turns out to be their organic sound on Sand & Lines. Every bit of atmosphere, every affecting layer is all on display in their playing on this record. They are tight, surely, but the way they stretch out without losing control is something to be admired. Songs like the swaying “Sidelights” or the lilting “Lucky Lady” or the gentle rumbling of “Falls City” all have a uniform echo that ties them together, but each carves out its own emotional feel. And, on top of these tracks, the band delivers pitch-perfect vocals. Dan Lawson and Carolyn Troupe deliver harmonies that are simultaneously strong and vulnerable, and when the whole band comes together to harmonize on “Bardstown Road”, it’s the highlight of the record.
There are also a handful of covers on the record that the band handles equally well. Galaxie 500’s “Tugboat” may seem an obvious fit for Venice Is Sinking’s sound, but their version works because it is both true to the original and builds its own brilliant horn-filled crescendo that fills up the whole theatre around them. Their ghostly waltz version of “Jolene” builds a bit slower, but the payoff is just as guileless and triumphant as the one on “Tugboat”.
In the face of these great covers, and the quiet energy that drives the first half of the album, the middle does feel like it settles in a bit. With no crowd around, the vocals quiet down and the mid-tempo haze of the songs loses just a slight bit of steam. There’s no misstep here, necessarily, but with the band operating alone, there might be a moment in the middle where this feels a bit insular.
However, then songs like “Bardstown Road” and the band’s take on “The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get Over You)” end these sessions of a very strong note. Venice Is Sinking are on their game here, and Sand & Lines is a statement for them as a band — after they’d already proven themselves as songwriters — and a beautiful document of an important venue in independent American music.