Music

AU: Both Lights

On Both Lights, AU blends minimalist impulses with dramatic pop dynamics and flavor. It's the recipe for some great songs, but an inconsistent album experience.


AU

Both Lights

US Release: 2012-04-03
Label: Hometapes/Leaf
UK Release: 2012-04-02
Website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

At a mere 40 minutes and change, Both Lights is still practically too much for one sitting. On AU's third album, the Portland, Oregon duo charges through a schizo array of compositions at such an unintuitive pace that it never quite satisfies as a whole. Song for song, part for part, Luke Wyland and Dana Valatka and assorted guest performers are so on top of their instrumental game that it's hard to knock them for a little hyperactivity. In fact, the jumps in mood and style are impressive in themselves, considering the minimalist underpinnings of so many of these tunes. In Reichian fashion, Wyland builds most of these compositions on repetitive, percussive figures that evolve slowly, if at all, but he's not content to let them simmer, instead decking them out with more traditional hooks. Unfortunately, the impatience throughout that forces all of AU's Morse code dots and dashes into familiar pop forms on individual songs is partially what makes Both Lights so confounding as an overall experience.

Opening instrumental stunner "Epic" starts with a flurry of drums and a punishing finger-tapping guitar part worthy of Marnie Stern. There's an initial rush, but, with only slight variations and Valatka's impressive fills offering momentum, it could easily fall into music nerd exercise territory. Then just when you think the song will ride this repetition into the ground, there's a dropout that's all rock'n'roll drama. Here, on the first of his two memorable guest turns on the album, bass saxophonist Colin Stetson lays down a supporting rhythm that you feel in your gut for the rest of the song. When the main figure picks up again, Wyland slowly adds textures to the central rhythm, adding some doubt: Was there even a guitar at all, or has it always been keys or, perhaps, viola all along? By the end, Valatka is laying back, the main riff is modulating up and down, Stetson is holding steady with that rumbling sax, and there's a horn section holding chords over the whole thing. Epic, indeed.

"Epic" may set a standard of excitement that Wyland and Valatka never quite meet again, but it's indicative of the way that, in the album's best moments, AU twists its repetitive impulses into accessible thrills on Both Lights. One key element, a double-edged sword here, is dynamics. On previous releases, AU favored similar rhythmic layering over traditional pop structures, but they've never blasted those rhythms out with this kind of force. Combined with Wyland's reliance on acoustic instruments (understated on Both Lights) and his tendency as a vocalist to slowly croon his vowels over considerably busier instrumentation, it's no wonder that AU has garnered comparisons to Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear. Both Lights isn't departure enough to erase those comparisons completely, particularly on the horns and banjo-driven positivity anthem "Look Alive", but the rock attack here is probably more akin to Battles covering one of those bands.

This increased mastery of intra-song dynamics, however, doesn't translate into overall flow. The full force ostinati and whiplash rhythms of "OJ" are impressive enough in isolation and even leave room for some impressively twiddly keyboard soloing, but they're a jarring lead-in to the mellow mood piece, "The Veil". On "The Veil", a bed of warm, throbbing drones, piano chords cut in and out, choked and abruptly starting mid-attack. The juxtaposition of the two tracks brings out "OJ"'s abrasiveness and renders "The Veil" an innocuous palate-cleanser despite its own virtues. There's a similar contrast at work in the transition from the frenetic "Why I Must" to the three-song suite of "Go Slow", "Old Friend", and "Don't Lie Down", which concludes the album in a consistently floaty mode, puzzling in itself in light of the extreme pushes and pulls of the rest of the album.

What's curious is that, while AU seems to have trouble balancing its rhythmic and atmospheric urges for the album runtime, they do it well in individual songs. "Solid Gold" pulls together the various strands of Both Lights into an immensely satisfying microcosm. Starting with an airy, piano-backed dedication to "your eyes, bold and inspired" (one of the few lyrics that Wyland enunciates well), it jumps quickly into a frantic sixteenth note pattern on the keys and percussion, offset again by a Stetson-provided bass sax line. After a vocal harmony breakdown and an uncharacteristically traditional-sounding alto sax solo from Stetson, "Solid Gold" builds to a noisy and precise finish.

With individual tracks as strong as "Solid Gold", "The Veil", and, particularly, "Epic", Both Lights is a terrific collection, and that may be enough for some people. But its failings in terms of flow, the inclusion of jarring throwaways like "Today / Tonight", and some unflattering track juxtapositions make for an album best consumed in small bites.

7

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image