Boston’s Valerie Allen and Eli Queen met in high school, fell in love, and formed the Autumn Rhythm, which is basically Allen singing and playing guitar while Queen plays bass. Their debut release Secret Songs features 10 tracks and 28 minutes of simple guitar lines, soft-but-commanding vocals, and little else. Yo La Tengo immediately springs to mind, but the Autumn Rhythm’s just not that good or interesting. It also stays far more subdued (like And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out Yo La), and never raises its voice above a sad whisper. However, it’s probably unfair to compare these newcomers to indie stars, especially when the band’s projects do differ.
The Autumn Rhythm centers on Allen’s vocals. She’s got a lovely voice, and she’s emotive without being melodramatic. The restraint serves her well at times, but also lends to the general monotony of Secret Songs. With a sound like Sinead O’Connor’s, Allen has the potential for a quality performance, but this disc isn’t the one. Her lyrics are moving when intelligible, but too easily lost.
The music, too, is an easy take. The hooks and melodies lie over basic arpeggiated guitar parts. At its best, the Autumn Rhythm sounds like Luna or Galaxie 500. It too frequently fails to catch the “pop” part of “dream pop”, however, and weights the eyes more frequently than something this light should. As background couch music, it’s fine, but it’s not varied enough to hold one’s attention.
One of the tracks worth paying attention to is “Bury Me Standing”, which is itself buried late in the sequence. It begins with the by-now-usual guitar work, but the heavy drum pulse adds an important element. At the two-minute mark, the guitar starts a steady crescendo accompanied by cymbal taps. Just when you need a release, the band drops back into its verse, and Allen finishes her narrative.
On the next track, “Afraid to Fall”, Allen sings about the fear of losing something good. She shows the power of inertia in the dualistic line: “I’m sorry, but I haven’t done anything at all”. At one moment, it’s an apology from the guiltless; the next, it sounds like an apology for being frozen by fear. It does not contain the most original sentiment, but “Afraid to Fall” is a direct and appealing song, the type that only a band as willing to be as vulnerable as the Autumn Rhythm can produce.
A track like “Afraid to Fall” is easy to miss, though, because nothing noticeably separates it from the surrounding nine songs. It would be very difficult to describe any song on this album with the phrase “the one where”, because the tracks are all the ones where the same old things happen. The songs have sadness, wistfulness, and anxiety, but each of these sound the same, and that’s a problem.
The Autumn Rhythm is named for a Jackson Pollock painting, one of those splatter-works that at first glance look the other splatters, until you look closely at them and see the details: the use of color, the structure, the overall mood. I’d like to say that I had an epiphany about Secret Songs in which I realized the subtle nuances of each track, and pulled out the differences. I’m a bit of a fibber, but not that much of one.
It’s funny to think of Pollock painting being alluded to by a band this subdued. His other painting that I associate with music is White Light, which is part of the cover of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. On that album, Coleman and his double-quartet take risks, experiment, and generally run amok. Pollock’s painting sounds much more like a Coleman run than an Autumn Rhythm drone. I’m not suggesting a band has to sound like a painting looks — just that it should sound like something.