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Built Like Alaska: Autumnland

Built Like Alaska
Sweat of the Alps

There’s something good afoot here. Following the opening strains of the brief “Theme from Autumnland”, a wonderful sense of ironic disillusionment, heightened observation, beauty and general struggle make up the 14 musical slices of rural small town American life that comprise this most ambitious release. For this, their sophomore effort, Built Like Alaska should garner much well-deserved attention — this is the kind of pleasant indie surprise that will strike a chord with many.

Autumnland is all over the map, a diverse and grand exploration of moods and moments, nostalgia tinged with world-weariness and wry smiles, merging folk sensibility with flavors of baroque pop and a heavy dollop of casual independent rock. They have been compared to Grandaddy (whose Sweat of the Alps label coordinated with Future Farmer to co-release this disc), but their sound goes to different places.

The band hails from California’s Central Valley (Oakdale, to be precise), where the isolation allowed them space to develop their sound. Built Like Alaska is a quintet featuring Neil Jackson (vocals / guitar), Matt Candelario (bass), David Burtch (drums), Susane Reis (keyboards / vocals) and Sean Norman (guitars). The first part of the album showcases Jackson on lead vocals, while the latter part shifts those duties over to Reis. I prefer the Jackson-helmed songs — there are less of them, and the Reis-led songs can tend to get a bit ponderous.

The first song, “Ran Into A Coroner”, is the engaging type of surreal discussion one might easily expect to overhear, somewhere between horse sense and beating a dead horse. Neil Jackson’s soft vocals propel the proceedings — at times almost a laundry list of items and thoughts:

“A chain-link fence, / It’s hard to level this, /
Without a beat, / Without a probe, / Hell, /
A crumbling rose with no house left, /
Haven’t I been warned, /
And dragged and torn like an organ donor /
Ran into the coroner.”

Interesting synthesizer riffs (almost Cars-like) fill the spaces in “Does Your Mother Feel Sick”, another mid-tempo track with curious lyrical musings:

“I don’t envy the arms that hold me, /
I don’t pity no one until some things that’s been done to them have been done to you, /
I put a lot of weight in this, /
But your head is a cow that’s been living in town, /
Dreaming of the country, dreaming of the open space.”

I love the piano-driven “A Happy Home” because it sounds so distinctly unhappy. Here is a man wondering if he’s alone in wanting a happy home after all he’s been through: “I’ve had enough of things replaced, / Like a barren heart, / Ten acres gone and turned to dust.” Again, Jackson’s vocals perfectly express the required weltschmerz.

There’s a sweet, innocent sound to these songs that really complements the poetic lyrical twists. Witness “Dirty Mouth”, wherein one is discussed who has developed “such a dirty mouth, / That his mind goes such that he spends his days cursing in Latin”. The optimistic message here is one of memory and continuity, a universe where “feelings mean everything”, and “even if you leave us, you can never leave us”.

Another quiet, sweet winner of a tune is the slow-building, endearing “Heavy Foot”. This is a meditation on a number of things, including friendship:

“And I should always walk and sometimes run, /
When the count begins can I count on you for once, /
Doing what I used to, / Doing things for nobody else.”

There’s a hesitance to the intriguing rhythms behind “Train Wreck”, a ponderous prayer of a song in which Susane Reis takes the vocals and pleads for safety in order that no one should sing of train wrecks. In the latter part of the song, there’s a lyrical word-association explored — a very eclectic coda to a song that manages to use odd sounds in a most effective way.

Reis also sings the intriguingly titled “Allergies And Lust”, the somber, quiet journey of an outsider coming to terms with the realization that it’s time to go: “So keep going, you poor lamb, / You’ll be fine, / Detox and decide to lose, / You’re losing life.” Fear not, there’s a happy ending (or so we’re lead to believe).

Piano drives the start of “Wet Hay In A Barn”, an almost hypnotic song that explores unusual imagery around the subject of feeling badly about how everyone has been taken in: “Tiny farm gone smoldering red like wet hay in a barn or a hand on a breast, / A nervous man with a worm in his heart.”

“Random Car” asks the musical question “What do I brake for?”, and does a nice job of employing its synthesizer (but don’t ask me what these lyrics are on about). The sweet ballad “Controlled Climate” is another piano song, this one allowing Reis to sing her poetic allusions in a most expressive way (“leaving blood trails like Rand-McNally”). This is basically a track about asking for pardons while one is still alive.

“It’ll Keep You Warm” is a short tidbit of a pleasant offering, more of a fragmentary song idea than anything else, and it segues directly into the powerful musical themes of “Almost The Earth”, wherein songwriting is part of the agenda discussed (e.g., “should I use the word euphoria just to bring him down in choruses?”). It’s about music and songs — and the ultimate pointlessness of it at times — “The river never really goes away, / And it doesn’t ever really mean a thing, / If I’m the only one that ever hears me sing.”

The CD ends with the melancholy strains of “Quake Song”, which largely consists of a piano and vocal treatment that meanders a bit even as it builds (and other instruments join in), discussing whether someone really was at this last earthquake, etc. It’s an odd choice for a closing song, but that’s part of the spirit of independence that Built Like Alaska demonstrates.

These songs are an eclectic mix of mostly sad thoughts, infused with small town ennui and presented in a haunting and hypnotic manner. It was recorded by band member Jackson with additional help from Lucky Lew (who has also worked with Grandaddy). Sometimes it’s like listening to a mopey, dreary distillation of American life — but it’s strangely compelling. While the soft Autumnland and its odd charms won’t appeal to everyone, it’s full of a number of pleasantly laid-back musical surprises that might just win you over.

RATING 6 / 10