Quiet as They Wanna Be
General wisdom: If you want anything done right -- or at least done cheaply -- the best thing to do is do it yourself. It's wisdom that the four members of the Austin, Texas-based American Analog Set have taken to heart. As with the band's first two records, its latest release, The Golden Band, was recorded by the group in the comfort of its home studio. For an outfit not yet rolling in piles of excess cash, home recording continues to be a logical career choice. Cheap college-area housing in Austin allows the band to rent a house with enough space for its own recording studio, giving the American Analog Set plenty of time and freedom to experiment.
According to singer-guitarist Andrew Kenny, engineering and recording music in the band's home studio has a direct impact on the American Analog Set's style. "There are a few drawbacks," he admits. "There is the loss of fidelity. If you don't record in a really big studio, chances are that you're not going to have a huge-sounding record. Recording at home, our limitations are mainly sound and lack of engineering skills. I don't think that the quality of our band demands that we have a nice studio experience and lots of money to record. I think our recording skills are about on par with our musical skills."
To date, the American Analog Set's recordings are characterized by a vintage organ sound, brushed drums, extended quiet passages, droning guitars, and simple, repetitive song structures. Oh, great, you're thinking, another indie pop band.
Have no fear. Yes, an entire subgroup of mostly American indie bands bases its aesthetic on performing quietly and slowly. Nuance, so the reasoning goes with this crowd, is easier to discern when every sound is carefully placed and considered. Bands such as Low, Bedhead, and Codeine have turned down the volume to invite listeners to get more intimate with the music. In the less accomplished realms of the music world, mopey art-school boys and girls crank out derivations of this kind of stuff semester in, semester out. But the American Analog Set has gone well beyond these somewhat clichéd attempts. What sets the band apart is that it takes the elementary and common to uncommon levels. While The Golden Band, for instance, evokes the group's influences, it also drifts away from them, subtly exploring other options.
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To some extent, of course, the American Analog Set fits in with the larger group of toned-down indie rockers. Drummer Mark Smith never falls into the traditional rock conventions of playing too loud or too much. Songs move only a bit faster than heartbeats. But what really distinguishes the American Analog Set from its mostly like-minded peers is that, even in the midst of restraint, the band sets up a groove, albeit a quiet one.
"I've never had the urge to really get down and rock out," Kenny says. "When I got my first electric guitar, I had a distortion pedal and a little amp that I used to crank up and I don't know, I just stopped doing it one day and never did it again. I gave away my distortion pedal to someone who really wanted it. I don't want to say that I looked back and gave rock music the finger -- I listen to some loud music -- but it wasn't something that we wanted to play."
The American Analog Set (which also includes keyboardist-vocalist Lisa Roschmann and bassist Lee Gillespie) formed in Fort Worth five years ago. Soon thereafter the band migrated to Austin, the heart of the Texas music scene. Though the group signed a record deal with Emperor Jones after only two gigs, its members had to endure early criticism for not being able to translate successfully their trance-inducing music to a live audience. Positive recognition finally came in 1997, when the group was named one of Request magazine's "Indie Bands That Matter." Later that year the band landed on the lower rungs of Village Voice's year-end critics' poll.
It has been an interesting journey that has led the American Analog Set to the recent release of The Golden Band. The record is similar to the band's first two releases, 1996's The Fun of Watching Fireworks and 1997's From Our Living Room to Yours. On The Golden Band, however, most of the songs are shorter, less like audio meanderings and more like, well, songs.
"[The Golden Band] is a lot different to me, but I'm sure there are people who think there's no change at all," Kenny says. "With the new record, I really get the feeling that there are whole songs there -- verses, bridges, changes. It's not completely formulaic and mainstream by any means, but I think it's a lot more straightforward surely than the first record and a lot of the second record. There were a couple songs that we let go a little because I liked how they were sounding, but overall there's more three- and four-minute songs than on any other record."
Of course there are exceptions. Despite the relatively no-nonsense approach of The Golden Band, the record includes the epic "New Drifters," a four-movement song on four separate tracks that accounts for one-fourth of the album's total playing time. "New Drifters" is the kind of indulgence a band without the worries of expensive studio time and often more-expensive engineers and producers can afford. Kenny says the advantages of home-studio recording are countless.
"The new record costs $78 to record, just the cost of [recording] tape," he says. "You're not on the clock, and you're not working with a fifth person wanting you to do this and try this and sing this. The best thing about it is you get all tied up in knots when you've been playing for six or seven hours, working on something, and then you just say, 'You know what? We'll do this tomorrow or next week or next month.' It just doesn't matter."
This liberating attitude is what allows the American Analog Set to follow its muse, no matter where it leads. Occasionally the band embraces more ambient music, stretches out from structured songs, experiments with sound. The Golden Band's title track, for example, pulses with reverberating vibraphones and a muffled bass drum. Drifting by almost unnoticed, the song serves primarily as an extended introduction to the next track, "I Must Soon Quit the Scene." The band goes a bit post-rock on this tune, offering hypnotic repetition of the melody line with subtle variations in rhythm. A rippling vibes line plays off the odd time signature and shuffling drums. Kenny's vocals are hard to make out, but his thin voice and quick cadence infuse the song with a sense of urgency.
Elsewhere, for the better part of the six-minutes-plus "It's All About Us," the sound is so minimal that guitar-string scrapes and Kenny's breathing are clearly audible. These are hushed moments, even considering the rest of the record. The drums arrive just when it seems the song should end, but they don't trample the delicate surroundings; combined with the omnipresent organ, they simply add subtle texture. The song finishes with an instrumental flourish, building tension as it slowly crescendos. Similarly the second track of the four-part "New Drifters" has vocals that are buried so deep in the keyboard miasma that only snippets of lyrics are discernable. A loping, circular guitar line offers only more sonic uncertainty.
In their home studio in Austin, the members of the American Analog Set make demanding music. For the listener it takes patience and endurance to discover its wonders. Fortunately the rewards are worth the wait.
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