Many of the Aislers Set's moods prefer melancholy. They mass classic pop and post-punk behind a yearning woman's small, echoed voice that demands attention.
The Ronettes cover Joy Division. This was my first impression when, over a decade ago when browsing at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, I heard this San Francisco band playing over the speakers. Their third CD had been released. I asked the clerk, I found it, and I bought it.
What I heard, when I sought out the previous records by Amy Linton and her colleagues, was a sound that endeared me to their post-punk indie-pop blend. However, when I downloaded many of tracks I liked best, I also skipped over a few on each album. For, the Aislers Set dashes between atmospheric or jaunty evocations of longing and love, and chirpier, more twee tunes that left me less moved, if respecting their craft.
The Suicide Squeeze/Slumberland Records reissues (no rare or bonus tracks, unfortunately) of the Aislers Set demonstrate how much of the Set's impact comes from singer-songwriter Amy Linton and how much from her nimble band mates. They began to enter the line-up halfway into the making of her self-recorded debut. Terrible Things Happen (1998) had started in Linton's garage, and it keeps some of the homespun drone-pop of her former band, Henry's Dress.
"Friends of the Heroes" opens the first album typically, with downbeat post-punk guitars and Linton's forlorn presence. "California" mixes in well-paced acoustic textures, but it sours its summer setting with whirring electronics, ominous bass, woozy vocal backing, and thundering drums. "Holiday Gone Well" similarly, plays its title against its start, as industrial rhythms hammer. They fade into a passage reminiscent of Joy Division, careening down into a voice rising from somewhere deeper. A blend of delicacy ("I fell in love again") and uneasy emotion, as the track chugs along, introduces true talent.
Slowing down, "Alicia's Song" roams into girl-group turf from more than 30 years before. (Critic Jack Rabid has compared Amy Linton to Shirley Alston Reeves of the Shirelles.) Measured drums and a sparer use of keyboards accentuate the texture of this, as it uses traditional arrangements to pay tribute, but not to imitate, Linton's forebears who sang of love, lust, and loss as they all reverberated.
This segues into "I've Been Mistreated" in similar fashion. The guitar swirls down into a melodic drain. Here, Linton's songwriting continues to reveal a knack for combining old and new, as if 1966 Motown met 1977 Manchester. Critics have found traces of groups as diverse as Belle and Sebastian, My Bloody Valentine, and the Who in her modest but impressively constructed productions, but to me, the Aislers Set, whether more of an early solo project or the later band, cuts out a fresh template.
"Mary's Song" shuffles along, indicative of the varied pacing on the band's albums. All three tend to fall off in energy as they progress, but on this first release, the energy sustains itself longer. The tracks move from early delight or delusion into delicacy and dissipation. Wyatt Cusick takes over the mike for "Why Baby". His voice reminds me of Will Schwartz, from another inventive, sometimes surprising, queasy pop band from the city, Imperial Teen.
Mathematical wordplay enlivens "Long Division"; the remaster improves on the warped, appealing, if very lo-fi production on the 1998 disc. Reminiscent of Lou Reed's guitar in its more relaxed mood, "London Madrid" allows Linton another round of tambourine and plucked bass. Some songs on this album feature guitarist Cusick, keyboardist Jen Cohen, bassist Alicia Vanden Heuvel, and drummer Yoshi Nakamato, stalwart support for the stolid or sly Linton.
A very minimal "Cocksure Whistler" uses only a subtle strum to back up Linton's lyrics. Returning to the depths where the bass digs in and voices strain to rise above, "Army Street" imitates its title, as if a regimented stretch beneath a tall concrete wall, or a hundred barriers. The attempts at cheer in "Falling Buildings" again clash with the title, as the lyrics seem to scrape out an admission of defeat. Whether its of Linton or her rival remains uncertain in her blurred articulation. The atmosphere of "Jaime's Song" filters from a distance Linton's chimes and voices, overlain in elegant, languid layers.
Finally, "My Boyfriend (Could Be a Spanish Dancer)" ambles along in catchy style, as if a garage-band's hit from the era so much of this album captures, yet does not mimic. For instance, the drums careen about, throwing off playfully the jaunty beat, and upending it just for fun. In this way, updating the sounds of the past, post-punk and girl-group, on this reissue, these songs remain some of Linton's best. Critics tend to assume she and her band, as she expanded her solo project, improved in range and execution with other two albums, but they both spin away with many downs as well as ups.
The same lineup coheres on the more ambitious The Last Match (2000). While this is ten minutes shorter than the first CD, its uneven sequence, and wider influences as others contribute to the Set's sound, make it a challenge that perplexes as well as pleases the listener.
The punchy "The Way to Market Street" boasts improved production as it compresses the old-new influences of the first record into an organ-backed, percussive, civic celebration. More retrospective than previous songs, "Hit the Snow" recalls what the Beach Boys might have penned if they lived in more frigid climes. Cusick's "Chicago New York" delivers what many may interpret as an homage to Belle and Sebastian. More typical for the band, "One Half Laughing" roars with organ fills, sighing la-las from Linton, and spirited guitar-bass-drums crunch. Here, the girl-group sashay mingles with the surf-speckled strut, in a closely miked combination of two 1960s genres for a forceful pop tune.
Blondie might have been jealous of "Been Hiding". It brings that band's female-dominated perkiness into a more aggressive guitar arrangement, but one still recalling that patented Phil Spector Wall of Sound. The crunchy interplay of instruments over Linton's soft voice in the lofty "Balloon Song" (from fellow Slumberland act 14 Iced Bears) shows off the band at its most effervescent, and how it works best in short bursts with sturdy riffs. Back for "Lonely Side of Town", Cusick offers a lighter, piano-based contribution to balance our the ambitions of his band mates on the louder, denser tracks.
The title track soars as if effortless. Over, or under, an orchestrated instrumental bank of rising sounds, Linton incorporates horns to highlight her graceful appeal to "tell me something nice". Continuing the tribute to the power of the keyboard, "Christmas Song" integrates sleigh bells over another construction of sounds, as the band proves it can deliver a satisfying track without a singer.
Sidling into spaghetti-Western territory before wandering back to the haunts described above, "The Walk" lags, by comparison. The surf-guitar and punk bashing of "The Red Door" revive memories of Linton's roots, as well as a reminder of the band's ability to kick in amplification and feedback over what can be quite an atmospherically diverse CD. Only 35 minutes, it can feel epic, if uneven, too.
As proof, the skittering "Fairnt Chairnt" while better in its remastered version still lacks the staying power of the album's best riff-laden selections. None of the songs on either album fall flat, but if a handful had been originally cut, these albums might near classic status. Cusick shows on "We Give Up" that he can handle a more aggressive song as frontman, but as it lacks the depth and intricate structure of some previous standouts, it remains by comparison satisfactory and not a standout. Yet this attests to the strengths of these two imaginative albums. With a title like "Bang Bang Bang" closing this second CD, one has no idea what to expect. It's a gentle, spare coda, as Linton reflects.
These remasters pound the instruments into your ears. They deepen the vocal separation from the percussion, bass, and guitars. The original CDs had a tinny, warbled charm, but they also wore one out as Linton's appealing if mannered delivery worked best in three-minute doses. So, you may find yourself compiling, as I have, an Aislers Set playlist. I often play it in the starting stages of a long jet flight: the tones fit departure, and its giddy balance between pressure and its release. Many of the Set's moods prefer melancholy. They mass classic pop and post-punk behind a yearning woman's small, echoed voice which demands attention. After all, it first caught my ear above the clatter of hundreds of CD cases thumbed through by hundreds of customers in a cavernous, cement floored, Hollywood record store.