It seems that Aaron Deer has got songs to spare. Already a member of indie rockers the Impossible Shapes and gospel blues revivalists John Wilkes Booze, Deer has still had time to sit down and put his more music to tape, releasing it under the moniker Horns Of Happiness. A Sea As a Shore, Deer's second full length, is a fifteen-track opus that owes a great deal to Neutral Milk Hotel and occupies the same indie space-folk territory as the Microphones.
It doesn't take long after putting this disc in your CD player to discover that A Sea As a Shore is a decidedly more lo-fi effort, eschewing the slick production that rounded out the Impossible Shapes' last album, We Like It Wild. Where the precision recording of We Like It Wild rendered the music forgettable, Deer's own low-key work behind the boards brings a much needed urgency to his songs, ultimately commanding the listener's attention.
The opening organ swell, shambling percussion, and the close mic-ed, dry vocal treatment of "Joyous Laughing Awake" immediately conjure visions of Jeff Mangum's finest moments. However, the song takes an abrupt mid-song turn, slowing into a heavy synth driven groove to close out the tune. Deer seems to tire of his own melodies and often shifts gears mid-song. "Asleep in the Already Known" is another surging Mangum-esque pop number that is barely a minute old before the song peters out into some acoustic guitar mucking that slowly builds into an extended guitar freakout. "The Return" is an otherwise fine song that unfortunately and inexplicably spends its last twenty odd seconds in a faux free-jazz jam. The final track, "Watch Me Laugh Again" seeks to tie the up the album sonically, throwing out the melody of the rest of the song and ending with an identical organ swell that graced "Joyous Laughing Awake". These sort of contrived moments undercut many of these songs, perhaps betraying Deer's lack of confidence in his own abilities to sustain a simple pop tune.
Some of the best moments on A Sea As a Shore are found when Deer leaves his songs well enough alone. "Wonders" is a wonderful, minute-and-a-half, piano-driven song. It's a concise pop statement that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the album. "Of Whistling & Wine" also excels because of its simplicity. An acoustic guitar, a tambourine, a pump organ (?), and Deer's earnest voice hold court and the results are mesmerizing. And the straight-ahead, mournful indie rock of "Autumn Breathes East" left me wanting to hear another minute of the reverberated, slinky guitar work.
Despite these highlights, much of A Sea As a Shore is bogged down in calculated spontaneity, and too many aimless instrumental interludes. Deer's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach buries his otherwise catchy pop hooks under a blanket of instrumentation and a bewildering need to change directions on a moment's notice. Deer is a gifted songwriter, but needs to be secure in simplicity and power in his songwriting, and strip away the excesses. There is a gorgeous, folky pop gem hiding here; unfortunately, it can't be seen under Deer's weighty arrangements.