Even though How I Learned to Write Backwards is arguably the band's darkest hour, it's still affirming and affecting, the final piece in a wonderful trilogy of albums.
I have a personal anecdote about the Aislers Set, if you'll allow me. I saw the band play at an Ottawa, Canada club show when they opened up for Yo La Tengo 11 years ago now. I was promptly blown away, in spite of the fact that singer Amy Linton sounded hoarse and then told the audience towards the end of their set that she was suffering from the flu. This even endeared me more to the band, that they were able to carry on with the tour despite being afflicted by ailments. After the show, the band was selling merchandise at a table towards the back of the room, and I believe they had vinyl records for sale. They seemed to be an affable bunch, and I recall talking to the group, telling them how much I liked their sound. And then I committed an unspeakable sin: I didn't buy anything. This decision haunts me, as the outfit broke up the following year, and I have to wonder if one record sale may have changed the fortunes of the group.
Still, after releasing three albums, you can hear remnants of their music in bands such as Best Coast, Night School, the Vivian Girls and countless others. So the Aislers Set were influential, and it could be argued that nobody quite was doing what they were doing during their late '90s/early double aughts existence, taking cues from '60s girl groups, mod punk and surf rock. And here's something that surprised me about 2003’s How I Learned to Write Backwards, now getting the reissue treatment: I heard the song "Unfinished Paintings" for the purposes of writing this review and was immediately transported back to that club. I remembered hearing this. It's been 11 years, but I would be willing to bet money that that was one of the songs the group played. If so, that's just how sticky the band's songs were – hear them once, and you'll remember them forever.
While How I Learned to Write Backwards doesn't come with bonus materials – those are being saved for a rarities album scheduled to be released in early 2015 – this reissue is an interesting anomaly in the band's backcatalogue. It's the group's shortest record at just more than a half hour in length, and boasts just 11 songs, whereas 1998's Terrible Things Happen and its follow-up The Last Match (2000), which have also been recently re-released, both have 14. And whereas Terrible Things Happen and The Last Match came out on Slumberland Records, How I Learned to Write Backwards was released on Suicide Squeeze.
The overall mood, too, was (is?) generally, but not always, sombre and sad, and suggests that the band knew that their dissolution was right around the corner. Particularly, the last couple of songs, "Unfinished Paintings" and "Sara's Song", may bring tears to your eyes. "I thought things were getting better," muses Linton on the former, and it is clear that things were not. "I could care less," Linton sighs on the latter, hinting at the pending dissolution. To that end, How I Learned to Write Backwards is not as immediately satisfying as their predecessors, but it's still fascinating as a fond farewell to a group that didn't stick around long enough to reap their own rewards. If anything, the album shows the group maturing its style towards more Beach Boys style pop and leaning away from the more obvious Velvets copping elements of Terrible Things Happen and some of the more contemporaneous touches of The Last Match, which basically is the best Yo La Tengo album that Yo La Tengo didn't record.
"Catherine Says", which opens this release, is a xylophone tinged piece of '60s pop that owes as much to Brian Wilson as it does to Lou Reed. "Emotional Levy" makes hay with just a bass and handclaps, and features a glorious choir of background vocals, where "Languor in the Balcony" takes a more straight-ahead punk approach. "Melody Not Malaise" sees the group circling back to its girl group origins, while album highlight "Attraction Action Reaction" rips its jangly guitars out of the Byrds songbook. "Through the Swells" adds glorious horns to the proceedings. The album offers fragmentary pieces as well, with "The Train #1" and "The Train #2", which bookend "Attraction Action Reaction", to compelling effect. So while How I Learned to Write Backwards isn't really the smorgasbord of songs that Terrible Things Happen and The Last Match are, it does show the group moving forward into further developing its own signature style, even though the band might have had an inkling during its recording that they were making a last waltz.
If there's any weakness to this LP, it is in that imminent sense of deterioration. It can be hard to listen to as a break-up album, due to its permeating feeling of sorrow and melancholy. Still, the songcraft is bar none excellent and shows the group taking a giant leap forward in terms of being a bit more original and daring. That this was where things blew out just makes this that much tougher to hear. The upside is that the group has reunited sporadically (including for some recent performances), and the recent reissue campaign of its backcatalogue will, I am hopeful, earn them new fans. Who knows? Perhaps How I Learned to Write Backwards will someday not be considered The End, but just the stop of one phase of the outfit, if we are ever so lucky. I hope I have atoned for my sin of missing out on this album the first time around, because the Aisler Set simply deserved better – they are worthy than much more than a cult following.
Even though How I Learned to Write Backwards is arguably the band's darkest hour, it is still affirming and affecting, the final piece in a wonderful trilogy of albums. Do yourself a favour and collect all three. The Aislers Set proved that, while it might have not been able to overcome public indifference at the time of their initial existence, they could triumph over the adversity of whatever germs got thrown their way. Really, How I Learned to Write Backwards is wonderful stuff, even as tinged with gloom as it might be, and is worthy of hearing, if not for the first time, then all over again.