The Slow Signal Fade taps Steve Albini for an all-or-nothing stab at the coveted next level.
Before this year, Los Angeles' The Slow Signal Fade had released two rather solid EPs, Kindling and Through the Opaque Air. Having paid their dues through a hectic touring schedule and having received a measure of critical acclaim for those two releases, it seems that the band decided that it was time to break out. No longer would they be a local Los Angeles treasure, but they would be a nationally recognized force; rather than being measured against other bands, it would be they that other bands were measured against. And so they sold off just about everything they owned, played a pile of shows, and saved up just enough money for a one-week studio stint with a producer that they adored and revered, one Steve Albini. You may have heard of him.
The result of that week is Steady, and Albini can indeed be clearly heard in the result. Last we heard The Slow Signal Fade on Through the Opaque Air, they were a solid band with a lovely vocalist, one Marguerite Olivelle, whose music generally built into a single, driving force soaked in so much reverb as to be the aural equivalent of fog, difficult to see through but appealingly spooky. Albini has lifted that fog, allowing each instrument its own space to exist, making room for distortion but laying off the echo. The result is an album that very likely gives its listeners the best approximation to date of just how the members of The Slow Signal Fade hear their band in their heads, when they imagine what they sound like -- the mix is perfect, really, allowing all the instruments their own, distinctive personalities, but still keeping the sort of balance that reeks of complete instrumental synchronicity.
This mix does wonders in terms of allowing the individual songs' personalities to reveal themselves as well. It's possible that a song like "Counterpunch", all occasional piano strikes and arpeggiated chords with no drums to speak of, might have sounded as good with a different producer at the helm, but not likely. Fragility is the order of the day here, and there's a dry sound here that allows for Olivelle's vocals to sound as if they're being sung in the same room as the listener, rather than from a distant ampitheatre. "TBA" is the hardest, most rocking thing the band's done to date, and it's a good candidate for lead single (further evidenced by its top-tier placement on the band's MySpace page). The drums of Aaron Vishria pound and propel, enhanced by the near-trademarked Albini snare thump (see: Nirvana, "Scentless Apprentice"), and Olivelle goes from her usual vibratoless singing to a near evil-Dolores O'Riordan howl on the tremendous, soaring chorus. It's easy to see a crowded club shouting along as she sings "One more to the rescue" in that lovely-yet-anthemic way.
The problem here, I think, is that the band has officially put all its eggs in one Steady basket, but the return on this investment is not terribly likely to translate into big sales. Sure, Albini's production work has gone on to produce a few big hits saleswise, but almost all of those albums were released after the bands had gained a pretty sizable following already, their appeal lying in the fact that Albini found the raw vision of these bands and allowed that vision to express itself, rather than slathering it in studio gloss. By releasing their debut full-length under Albini, The Slow Signal Fade may be doing themselves a favor artistically, but they're shooting themselves in the foot on a commercial level, as the album is bound to appeal primarily to those that have heard the band before. There aren't a lot of people who are going to be wowed by the lack of guitar chords and the slow, plodding pace of songs like "At Least We're Dancing" or "The Same Song", both of which employ the sort of faux My Bloody Valentine-style ambience that can inspire boredom at least as readily as interest.
Still, everything I've seen of this little-band-that-could says that they're in it for the right reasons, that they simply wanted their sound to be as humongous and awesome as it could possibly be, and that Albini was the man to give them that sound. That's great, and they do fine with what Albini gives them. Still, despite the all-star presence, the band doesn't sound better, really, they just sound, well, cleaner. Cleaner isn't quite enough to push Steady past the rest of the indie crowd.