Love, Analog Style

Fighting the good 'n' quiet fight with the American Analog Set

Quitters never win, figures Andrew Kenny. The mastermind behind Texas combo the American Analog Set was basically ready to put the nap-inducing band to bed this year. He'd planned to play a few more shows, maybe wrap things up with an odds 'n' sods catchall album, then finish his doctorate in molecular biology. The way the stars had lined up made it easy for Kenny to pull the plug on AmAnSet's lower-fidelity lullabies once and for all.

"Everybody was doing their own thing," Kenny says of his bandmates, who remained in Austin as he pursued his higher ed in New York. After the sixth AmAnSet album, 2003's Promise of Love, was released to critical indifference, Kenny was prepared to return to school after the band's most recent tour.

"It seemed like the right time to get up and get out," he says from his Brooklyn apartment. "And it wasn't until this summer's tour that we thought, 'Oh, you know what? We really miss this.' I always thought we were on our own thing, on the fringe, on the outside of the legitimate long-term indie-pop bands. But this summer, for some reason, I just got gung-ho about it."

American Analog Settes: Andrew Kenny, second from left
American Analog Settes: Andrew Kenny, second from left

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The American Analog Set had been on a roll (a very subdued, sleepy, and simple roll, to be sure) prior to Promise of Love. Beginning as a bunch of friends getting together with nothing but an organ, guitar, bass, and drums and a desire to play unpretentious, untrained, and lazy music together, American Analog Set put forth a deceptively engaging mellowness. Since they'd dropped the addictively somnambulistic hymns of Low into the duo-chord drone of Stereolab, the stuff sold -- and was reviewed -- quite well, considering its limitations. The first AmAnSet release, 1996's The Fun of Watching Fireworks, is the sound of wispy weariness captured on primitive equipment. Together with the following year's From Our Living Room to Yours, the band (keyboardist Lisa Roschmann, drummer Mark Smith, bassist Lee Gillespie) proved intent to move nowhere at an almost imperceptible pace. The two records, cut from the same thin, gauzy cloth, do sound like they're late-evening transmissions from someone's living room, intimate and unadorned.

The Golden Band, one of 1999's best releases, consolidates AmAnSet's graceful, melodic minimalism -- whispered vocals, brushed cymbals and snares, acoustic guitars, and that warm Farfisa glowing like a fireplace in the corner -- into an economical purity. Kenny begins inching toward a sense of drama: Some of the songs build to informal, almost jammy climaxes ("It's All About Us"), while others wander like little micro-melodies floating through wind chimes ("A Schoolboy's Charm").

"Just within the repetition of a few simple notes and chord patterns, there's a wealth of possibilities," Kenny told me in an interview following that album, while charting his band's leisurely evolution. "People who write really repetitive music are more likely to be into music for music's sake, rather than the business end of it."

Since AmAnSet's songs were born in a living room, they worked well when moved to a small stage in a club, and the band toured relentlessly after The Golden Band, playing anywhere and everywhere. Always a quiet group by nature, it wasn't uncommon, says Kenny, to get out-volumed by some of the more excitable crowds.

With 2000 devoted to touring and Kenny finishing his degree at the University of Texas, AmAnSet fans had to wait until the following year for another record. It arrived in the form of Through the 90s: Singles and Unreleased, which combined rare nuggets, fun photos, a couple of live tracks, plus notes on each song. Even though it was essentially a stopgap release, it proved the band had been sitting on a satchel of good songs, in particular the soft-rock stunner "The Only Living Boy Around," a uniquely personal and spare little tune that's immediately endearing.

Even signposts like "Living Boy" didn't prepare anyone for 2001's Know by Heart. A new label (Tiger Style), new bandmates (including a vibraphone dude), and a completely new way of working helped make the album AmAnSet's breakthrough. Concise and strongly structured throughout, Know by Heart boasted a brace of succinct pop nuggets, dropping the drone in favor of brisk arrangements, tight, lean choruses, and the most memorable lyrics Kenny had yet written. It was possessed with a sense of power, confidence, and purpose that the previous albums hadn't exactly indicated. In short, suddenly, it was all about songs -- and at least half of Know by Heart's 12 tracks were the best AmAnSet had yet recorded. "The Kindness of Strangers," "Aaron and Maria," "The Postman," "Punk as Fuck" -- all were fully functioning vignettes, self-contained little narratives from a source previously known mostly for half-hearted mumbling.

"It was full of tidy songs, that's for sure," Kenny says of Know by Heart, as cab horns, car alarms, and sirens shout outside his window. "They don't ramble on too long. They kind of get in, do their thing, and get out. I was never happy with the vocals or the lyrics that much before that album." That all changed with Know by Heart. "I'd record ideas on a microcassette at night," he recalls. "Then I'd wake up and spend the entire day just refining and writing and working on the best bits from those demos, writing the lyrics and music." His method worked, and Know by Heart is far and away the best place for neophytes to begin their American Analog Set spelunking.

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