Once Around sounds like the product of a couple of incredibly talented musicians kicking back, drawing inspiration from some of their own favorite records, and laying down a set of songs good enough to record, but that rarely seem to provoke a sense of urgency in their creators. Since that’s pretty much what the Autumn Defense is and what they do, it seems perhaps a little unkind to criticize it for not being something else. At times, though, the mellow, laid-back vibe of Once Around seems to cry out for an infusion of energy and conviction that never quite arrives.
There is something fundamentally elusive in a lot of the Autumn Defense’s music. Listening to Once Around, one is left with an impression of classic, timeless music — “Huntington Fair”, in particular, trades on a lot of tropes of folk music and singer-songwriter traditions without ever seeming derivative or unoriginal — but somewhere in the combination of pleasant melodies, tasteful arrangements, and pristine production, something more idiosyncratic and memorable is lost.
As a result, the record’s most successful moments are its thornier ones. The leadoff track, “Back of My Mind”, spices up its piano-based power pop with some knotty, jazz-like chords. It also benefits from some breakdowns and rhythmic flourishes that raise the energy level about as high as it gets on the album. The result sounds sort of like Jon Brion covering Steely Dan, though without the offbeat humor or withering cynicism that characterize those artists. The title track is distinguished by its minor tonality, highlighted by delicate arpeggios and a keening, almost medieval melody. “The Swallows of London Town” features a kinetic rhythmic foundation that allows some of its other touches — banjo, 12-string guitar, gorgeous harmonies — to stand out and achieve their full potential.
More often, though, there are songs like “The Rift” or “Every Day”, where the occasional rich, harmonically ambiguous chord gives an indication of the songwriting talent at work, before settling into a comfortable groove as a stately melody unfolds over acoustic guitars. Understand, of course, that this is not necessarily bad — it’s not generic or derivative, which, considering the number of mellow acoustic records out there, is no small achievement. Indeed, the Autumn Defense may have achieved the Platonic ideal of soft-rock. This landmark is qualified, though, by the listener’s tolerance for soft-rock as they’re starting out. For someone aching for darkness, turmoil, mystery, or even just a song performed at 115 BPM or higher, there’s simply not a whole lot to recommend.
Taken one by one, any individual song is pretty, impeccably preformed, and well thought-out, and as such deserving of praise. Over the course of 45 minutes, though, it starts to feel kind of repetitive. Conflict, after all, is the essence of drama, and despite hints of romantic distress on songs like “Allow Me” and “Tell Me What You Want”, this is a profoundly un-conflicted record. It’s the sound of pleasant sunny afternoons or quiet evenings in, which are all well and good, but rarely the stuff of truly compelling art.