They could have been contenders; they probably should have been. But ultimately the peak of this band's hushed, precise, nuanced indie rock might have been a bit too twisty to catch on.
It is impossible to tell in advance what kind of effect seemingly small differences will have. In 2001, when Know by Heart came out, the casual observer might not have noticed much of a difference between the American Analog Set and Death Cab for Cutie; both bands played a kind of hushed, thoughtful indie rock with sometimes oblique lyrics. Rewind the tape, though, and the distance between the bands widened; while Death Cab were if anything even more quietly pained on their early songs, the American Analog Set were drawing elements from Krautrock and post-rock into lengthier compositions on 1996’s The Fun of Watching Fireworks. Fast forward instead and you see an even bigger disparity; the same year AmAnSet released their last album to date, Death Cab had their first top ten album (and every release since has done better than that one on the charts; even taking into account the collapse of the music industry, that's impressive). But in 2001, the two acts were close enough in sound and spirit that even some fans may have seen that Death Cab's Ben Gibbard was singing on Know by Heart's "The Postman" and wondered whether it was him or the band's Andrew Kenny singing lead (it's Kenny, but it's close). Why would one act slowly and steadily get bigger and bigger, while the other one (commercially at least) fizzles out?
It’s not as if the AmAnSet weren't beloved, and on the basis of the nuanced, well-crafted Know by Heart, deservedly so. Kenny is actually accompanied by Gibbard on one of the songs that’s aged the weirdest; while the music is still lovely in a softly lilting way, the portrait of a lovelorn postman might have seemed slightly melancholy and even romantic in 2001 but in the post Nice Guy(tm)/MRA/#gamergate world he reads more like a man a few steps in confidence and psychosis removed from the terrifying narrator of Death Cab's "I Will Possess Your Heart" (Gibbard would also cover this record's whispery "Choir Vandals" for a split EP with Kenny; the two bands don't exactly reject comparison). Maybe that uneasy balance between sympathy and wariness is what Kenny was trying to get at, in which case the beatific backing makes for extremely dry satire; that some of the other songs here play out roughly as complicated as that, emotionally or sonically, is a strength.
Certainly tracks like "The Only One" register as half straightforwardly romantic and half possibly obsessive; it'd take about one use scoring a montage of creepy behaviour to retroactively taint every mixtape that song's ever graced. But either way “The Only One” wouldn't work half as well if the whole band didn't play the brief song with such fierce and pleasing control, near-telepathically in sync and curving all over the place. The assurance and quiet power of the American Analog Set in 2001 is maybe most striking on this album's version of "Gone to Earth," which appeared in significantly looser and longer form on the band's debut. The yearning in the lyrics cuts deeper in this more precise arrangement, every vibraphone hit in place. At any given moment, Know by Heart is simply gorgeous on a visceral level, each song awash in soothing, chiming tones (even on the relatively more harsh "Million Young," nagged on by a buzzing synthesizer lead).
But these aren't really gentle songs, and if Kenny had to lead off with one about wanting to die "in the comfort of my own home" titled "Punk as Fuck" to make that clear, well, he did. Even the title track, the most clearly romantic effort here, speaks a little to boredom as well as to the persistence of real love in its repeated return to things that go "on, and on, and on". Mostly Kenny writes precise, devastating little sketches of situations and emotions rather than outright narratives; "The Kindness of Strangers" is so lovingly relaxed and returns to the title phrase enough that it feels soft and safe, but then you pick up on "the kid was/in danger/'cause she was cast out/but turned a corner and her dad forgave her." Just as the music itself is a little too spikey and knotted to ever settle into something outright loungey, these songs have claws (even if they're pulled in some of the time).
Right at the end, Know by Heart takes a sudden turn towards the more explicitly political, first with "Aaron and Maria"'s aimless, helpless kids trying to find jobs while eking out a living with the last of the old money (in some ways a dim foreshadowing of just how much more fucked 'the kids', and the rest of us, would get this decade), and then the way "We're Computerizing and We Just Don't Need You Anymore" reconfigures the endless sigh from 10cc's "I'm not in Love" into a gentle, post-crash lullaby for what might be possible outside the endless necessity of work. It's a fitting end to the best album by a band whose words got sharper as their sound got softer, a bittersweet combination that may be part of why the American Analog Set are a hidden gem in 2014 instead of playing festivals. Or maybe it's a simple as the fact that nobody ever decided to put one of their songs in a TV show; it might have spoiled the mood.