AM/FM: The Sky Is the New Ground

Robert Hickey


The Sky Is the New Ground

Label: Polyvinyl
US Release Date: 2002-10-29
UK Release Date: Available as import

Colour is the new black. Old is the new young. Or, as the Kings of Convenience announced a couple of years back, quiet is the new loud. It's hard to tell whether or not Philadelphia duo AM/FM are mocking such bold proclamations with the title of their EP, The Sky Is the New Ground, or if they're actually making one of their own. The record's fairly earnest tone would seem to indicate that the band isn't prone to making satirical jabs, but their tastefully experimental music suggests that AM/FM's not interested in turning the world upside down, either.

Perhaps it's just that songwriter Brian Sokel's attention was clearly turned to the heavens while he was writing the tracks for this collection. After the airy instrumental "Every Start" that opens the EP, the three tracks that follow all make some sort of reference to the skies, beginning with the countdown of "Gone in Three".

Sung in a sort of sleepy tribute to Brian Wilson's falsetto, the song is a farewell bid from one who is already distant from those he will be leaving. "We're further apart now than when I leave don't pretend not to see", intone the resignedly dispassionate vocals. Icy keyboards and an angular guitar line heighten this sense of emotional disconnection, which is crystallized in the dismissive line, "If you're not here to see me go I know it's hard it's in yr card".

It's not a stretch to see the next song, "Mrs. Astronaut", as being the flip side to "Gone in Three" -- a soliloquy from the one left behind. Starting immediately after a reprise of that song's countdown, a singsong waltz builds rapidly into a din of guitars and a chanting of "Away, away, away my dear / You're long gone have no fear". Unfortunately, the abandoned narrator's voice is delivered in the same detached falsetto of the previous song when some sort of emoting is critical, and the ever-mounting noise of the song somehow sounds calculated, like one of Billy Corgan's guitar epics, rather than emotionally genuine. Only the song's acoustic coda rings true, as Sokel ditches the falsetto to simply sing, "Dear wife, I'm sorry to be / Not the man you expected of me". That one moment, where self-pity and sorrow laced with anger mingle, achieves an authenticity that the rest of the song's belligerent wailing misses.

The EP closes with "All to Remember", a gentle song with almost touchingly clunky, naïve lyrics. Sokel evokes the earnest, impossible starlit promises of lovers as he meekly sings, "Say you'll live don't say you'll die / Save yr life and save yr heart / Save yr fear we'll never be apart". These soothing reassurances are made over an otherworldly loop which goes unchanged until the song's midpoint, when a jagged guitar line adds a countermelody -- and a mild note of discord to the lyric's sincere pledges.

There's much that is interesting in these four songs, and AM/FM's thoughtful approach is to be encouraged with popular music becoming increasingly intellect-optional. Still, there's a certain coldness that pervades Sokel's songs, and I can't help but hope that on his next outing, he focuses less on stratospheric production and stays a little more firmly grounded.

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