Love, Analog Style
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."
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.
After the subsequent tour, Kenny graduated from UT, began grad school, and moved to New York. But he couldn't fully let go of the band. First, he wished he could go back to the early records and fix some of the amateurish moments, like touching up old photos, removing a few imperfections here and there, using the new techniques he'd learned in the years since. The process certainly worked with "Gone to Earth," a track from The Fun of Watching Fireworks that had been reworked and rerecorded for Know by Heart. Originally stretching past the six-minute mark, Kenny sheared half of it clean off -- dead weight, in retrospect -- and returned with a sharp, pithy take on the original. But, he thought, why stop there?
"The Golden Band is a good, moody kind of record," he says. "I like the way it sounds, but there's so many things I wish I could go back and fix. On the older records, the problem was doubled or quadrupled by the fact that all the songs went right into one another. If you messed up once in a 20-minute mix, it meant going back and fixing the whole thing all over again."
With Know by Heart and Promise of Love, the band recorded the tracks on (what else?) analog equipment but mixed everything digitally, painstakingly tweaking and retweaking, "mostly fixing things that we thought should be quieter," Kenny says.
Promise of Love is not a bad record, but coming after the complete reinvention of Know by Heart, it felt like a lesser achievement. Eight songs long, Love didn't have Heart's heart nor its little laptop soul; the eight-minute "Modern Drummer" even wastes time frivolously, in a return to the band's old habits. Still, catchy little items like "Fool Around" (which could have been left off Know by Heart), "The Hatist" with its castanet-guitar clicks, and the purty, laconic "Come Home Baby Julie, Come Home" all contain moments of unguilty pleasure.
"The songs themselves I have to stand by," defends Kenny. "I think they'd be standout songs on Know by Heart if they'd been treated a little differently. They're as good as anything else we've ever done, but it wasn't really about the songs. It was about making some magic happen on tape. If I had to do it over, I would go back and touch up every song on the record. You live and you learn, you know? I thought that was going to be the period at the end of the sentence. I didn't know it was gonna be a comma in between Know by Heart and the next record. If I did, I would have done things a little differently.
"We thought [Promise of Love] might be the last record, with me being in grad school and all," he explains. But earlier this year, Kenny withdrew from Columbia so he could continue "to do the Analog Set for a little while. For the time being, anyway. I think I'm going to make music for a little while longer. I knew I'd miss it if I left it forever at this point. I'll do it for a little while longer, and then I'll go back and finish my Ph.D."
In the interim, AmAnSet is back to the grind, showing up anywhere it didn't hit in the past few years (the band hasn't visited South Florida since 1999). When not pillaging nightclubs, Kenny and clan continue to write and record an ever-growing stable of new songs. By next fall, there should be a new American Analog album in the racks. And then -- yeah, you know it, baby -- it's on the road again.
OK, everyone, back in the van!
"That's usually the way that we roll," Kenny laughs. "And then from there, we'll kind of take stock and say, 'Did this massive full-time touring and writing and recording schedule do us any good?' If we're all still gung-ho, we'll make a decision at that point. I feel like, in some way, we're kind of fighting the good fight, and it [keeping the band going] seemed like the right thing to do. This being the only thing any of us have ever really done in life that we could be proud of, it didn't seem right to just drop it and not do it anymore."
Of course, Kenny can be satisfied with his book-learnin' regimen too. And he can be proud of the work AmAnSet has done in pursuit of a Dr. Pepper ditty suitable to the suits at the soft-drink empire. In 1999, the band recorded a short, sweet homage to its favorite beverage (the track was later to emerge, retooled, as one of The Golden Band's drone-rock anthems, "The Wait"). Unfortunately for the band, "Dr. Pepper didn't share our sentiment, and the jingle was rejected," read Kenny's notes on Through the 90s, on which the 40-second would-be commercial is included.
"They really hated it," he remembers, adding that he's ready to take a second crack at the pop.
"Now that we're a little more wired in to the way things work, we're gonna rerecord it this January and try it again. I can record it a lot better these days."
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