Although a step forward, Anathallo can't shake the Sufjan Stevens comparisons on Canopy Glow.
Anathallo's sophomore release, Canopy Glow, leaves a feeling of something left undone. This album thematically concerned with death may describe a life unfinished: a life where great destinations sat on the horizon like an unreachable oasis. Like a snow-capped mountain on the highest windswept… you get the idea. These sentiments are the kind of wide-eyed wonderment Anathallo trades in, even when riffing on the darkest of concepts, on an occasionally intriguing but ultimately derivative album.
Canopy Glow offers several contradictions at the outset. For an album with a corpse on the front cover, the music is unexpectedly sunny. Bright horns bleat and cheery choruses swell and seem to remind us that death brings salvation. Although Anathallo has struggled to break from the "Christian band" tag, their music and imagery continues to revolve around existential/religious themes. The fact that hip-hop label Anticon released this album is another strange disconnection. Anathallo doesn't exactly mesh with the other artists on Anticon. This isn't necessarily a problem per se, but it does present questions of intent on both sides of the arrangement.
Existing in various combinations since 2000, Anathallo's persistent touring and incessant rehearsal have enabled a more fully-realized statement than their 2006 debut album Floating World. However, the band still sounds overstuffed with too many members and too few ideas. The songs here are shorter but overly dense with instrumentation. Does a band really need to use every single track available on ProTools? The glockenspiels and bells and other "unconventional" instruments on Canopy Glow fail to obscure the stitched-together feel of the tracks. For example, "Sleeping Torpor" begins with sparse piano chords, light acoustic strumming, and delicate vocals. When the rest of the band kicks in with multiple horns and crashing cymbals near the one-minute mark, it comes off as a bit awkward and forced. This is an unfortunate and reoccurring trend throughout the album. Anathallo are clearly a collection of capable musicians, but seem overly eager to throw everything into the mix all at once. The result is a band relying too heavily on bombastic gimmickry rather than studied restraint. True, the band has dialed back this tendency in comparison to Floating World, but the music on their latest still feels like a band struggling to edit themselves.
However, there are some genuinely successful moments on Canopy Glow that play to Anathallo's strengths. The interlocking boy-girl vocals on "Italo" and clacking percussion represent a satisfying interplay between the band's available resources without resorting to the type of gimmickry that hampers other tracks. In a similar vein, "The River" includes lyrics that provide the title for this record and find the band deftly balancing piano and vocal textures. Each member performing on "The River" has a clearly defined musical role that avoids feeling tacked-on.
Many have noted the obvious similarities between Anathallo and Sufjan Stevens. The marching band eclecticism, the Christian allusions, and the melodramatic scope are the primary intersections. This association weighs on Anathallo more than it does on Stevens. Anathallo occupies a lower position within this indie subgenre and within the general indie hierarchy. It seems that Anathallo is destined not to reach the level of adoration enjoyed by Stevens unless they truly differentiate themselves through their music. As of Canopy Glow, Anathallo may have refined their approach, but the move away from Stevens comparisons remains unfinished.