When the Appleseed Cast released their Low Level Owl discs (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) in 2001, critics perked up their ears and took notice. And for good reason. Here was a band that had seemed squarely within the emo genre suddenly bursting out of their mold into creative, dynamic directions. The Low Level Owl discs were filled with enough experimentation that for a time the Appleseed Cast was saddled with the weight of being called "the American Radiohead". Whether or not this was warranted, or fair to the Cast for that matter, it seemed as though the group was well on its way to transcending its comfortable spot as genre lackeys and making its own way into the darker waters of the indie rock oceans.
There was enough anticipation that after recording some excellent indie and emo rock, the Appleseed Cast gained the attention of the competition, leading the band to leave its home on Deep Elm and move on to the more expansive indie label, Tiger Style. Free of the all-too-emo association of Deep Elm, it seemed like a fair bet that the Cast would take the far-reaching sounds of Low Level Owl even further, perhaps even producing an album that would be truly vital.
Unfortunately, Two Conversations is not that album.
Rather than pushing its boundaries further, the Appleseed Cast seems to have regrouped back in its old strongholds. The results aren't bad -- in fact, Two Conversations is an easily enjoyable disc -- they're just a little underwhelming (to borrow a phrase from Sloan). The first time I listened to this disc, I kept waiting for that moment, that point at which the record would take off and explode. When it didn't happen, when the disc finally came to a stop, I was surprised and, well, yes, a bit disappointed. However, returning to the songs a few more times, it began to make more and more sense.
Where Low Level Owl was concerned, a lot of the overly simplistic association that reviewers made to Radiohead had to do with the sudden shift from emo rock guitar songs to tracks that were filled with electronic ambience. Short soundscapes filled with keyboard washes followed by sprawling epics heavy with prog and space rock drenched tones. Bursts of tension that matched the plaintive emotions of vocalist Christopher Crisci's voice. Long, winding guitar parts and thundering drums that approached the complexity of math rock. These things made those two discs ambitious and even grandiose, but also immediately vulnerable to charges of being overly derivative. There's not much credibility in being an imitator.
So, rather than continue to stand in the more popular and critically acclaimed band's shadow, you decide to return to your roots and find your own voice? Hard to argue with that.
In its own right, Two Conversations continues to prove that the Appleseed Cast will explore new territory, even if it's not always so distant and challenging as the Low Level Owl series. This time out, it's a decided slow-core element that gets highlighted. Sparse arrangements, wide open piano lines, and plodding beats are the anchors between the songs on this disc, and for a band like the Appleseed Cast, it works. And, in a way that certainly does connect back to their past efforts, Two Conversations has a distinct continuity that ties the album together. The first song, "Hello Dearest Love", begins with a long, floating piano piece that doesn't erupt into a guitar rock song until two minutes in. It echoes the continuing disintegration of the last song, "A Dream for Us", which finds a very similar piano tune and slowly sheds its instrumental skin until it become nothing more than a dirge beat and simple piano chords. Other tricks include the lyrics to "Hello Dearest Love", which ends with Crisci repeating the last line, "A stripe on fire", twice, then the song clearly ends, only to have the next track, "Hanging Marionettes", begin with that same line.
But little hooks of continuity can't hide the fact that there's still something like a step backwards to this album. It would be a little ridiculous to expect an emo band to completely shed its associations with its original scene, and Two Conversations sees the familiar lyrical props of stars, autumn, and the ocean pop up, as well as some broken-hearted emoting (although "Fight Song" makes this worthwhile rather than cringe-worthy), but they're gratefully not the whole show. At times, the sound has a very familiar feel as well, although this might have as much to do with the fact that, in spite of moving from Deep Elm to Tiger Style, the Appleseed Cast has decided to continue its working relationship with emo super-producer Ed Rose. As with the lyrics, the sounds that seem the standard fare of emo bands don't make up the whole disc, and there's enough variety to make it forgivable, it just seems a bit unnecessary.
Despite the fact that Two Conversations doesn't quite live up to the promise of its predecessors, it's a solid, well-written, well-performed, and well-produced album. Any band would be proud of the disc, and the Appleseed Cast should be. I can respect, as well, that a band wouldn't want to continue emulating the stylistic directions of their more well-known peers. Two Conversations is certainly not going to be confused with Hail to the Thief. But for the Appleseed Cast to take things to the next level, to really produce music that is their own but accessible and possibly even vital, I think they're going to need to find something akin to the shifting, intelligent, and melodically complex music found on older songs like "Steps and Numbers", and then take that into new territory. Two Conversations is a comparatively conservative approach. Still strong, yes, and still enjoyable to fans old and new, but not The One. However, one thing is certain: the promise is still there.