Baroque pop orchestras are thick on the ground these days, but few have the sweet, dream-blurred melancholy of Instruments, led by E6 cellist Heather McIntosh and an all-star Athens back-up band.
Surely one of the year's best experimental pop records, Dark Småland enlists a long list of familiar names from the mid-1990s Athens, Georgia scene. Heather McIntosh, who has played cello on any number of Elephant 6 albums, is this time at the center of the action, writing, singing, arranging and playing. Her main support comes from Olivia Tremor Control drummer Eric Harris, whose abstract rhythms pace these songs and push them into unusual corners, as well as guitarist Derek Almstead, an Elephant 6 mainstay who has played with Of Montreal, Elf Power, Marshmallow Coast, and a long list of others. Other Athens regulars drop in for a song or two; even the reclusive Jeff Magnum sings a few harmonies.
Still, all that bold-facing would mean nothing if the songs were not so beautiful -- and they are. For one thing, they're arranged invitingly in cycle that flows one to another like a lucid dream that could not go any other way. For another, they have the same natural, wholesome loveliness of trees and seascapes, whether they are capturing the blurry, nocturnal melancholy of deepening twilight, or clarity of sun-drenched forests.
Dark Småland feels, if not conceptual, at least broadly linked together. There's an arc to this record, a natural progression, so that it opens with the cello-rich, ocean-breezy sweep of "Ode to the Sea", picks up rhythmic intensity in "Sounds Electric" and the instrumental "Arabesque", then slows for the deep magic shadows of "Cello Ballad", and finally dawns gently and hallucinogenically in "Northern Skies". This latter cut is one of the album's loveliest, and most redolent of Circulatory System, not surprising perhaps, given that all three principals played on that band's sole album.
Still, this is no rehash, nor nostalgia trip, but rather a very original venture into cello-rich, visionary pop landscapes. McIntosh might have learned a thing or two about bending pop into psychedelia, or about adding instrumental density without weight to her arrangements from the Elephant 6 clique. But the songs, bright and beautiful, are her own.