March 18, 2019
Released On April 1, 2000
Released By Slumberland Records
Grass prickles underneath the sheet, the edges gone all tan and crisp in the dead Alabama summer. Faded yellow flowers are barely visible against the pink plaid of the thin fabric, a thrift store find purchased expressly for the sandy lake beaches and lawns that summer. We turn over, wrinkling the sheet and shifting our cigarettes, trashy magazines. Plastic tiki cups slosh almost over, filled with ice cracking in the syrupy sweet fruit punch we’ve poured so much vodka into the color’s gone all watery and translucent. Her silver Discman lies between us, turned up to max volume, the headphones split between us so we can listen and talk. She’s cooler than me, a friend made despite that kind of imbalance, one I see but of which she seems blissfully unaware. As hazy vocals undercut our talk of crushes and classes, I casually mentioned I really liked the album, not wanting to betray my ignorance of the band. “Oh good,” she said, sipping from a crazy straw. “I burned this for you.”
For the longest time, I didn’t know the actual song titles on The Last Match. She’d penned them all in Sharpie on the CD, making up names that fit better in her estimation. Her carefree attitude toward song names fits the aesthetic of the album, with the band’s surface-level irreverent attitude playing against the thoughtful arrangement. “The Way To Market Station,” the raucous opening track, remains my favorite almost two decades later. A story is buried in this track, inside jokes and quick quips that harken back to a life lived, but not by the listener. Throughout the album that kind of scrapbook mentality persists in other tracks, notably “Chicago New York.” A reconciled love, a spark ignited anew, drives forward the love story in the track, with just enough details to follow along, but never enough to feel confessional.
Pervasive, though, is a ’60s head nod, a harken back to the girl group pop of the era evident on every track in the album. The tonality of the guitar and bass have that high, bright sound that when combined with the time signatures and pacing of most tracks brings a faint whiff of nostalgia to mind, the kind that sounds natural rather than an homage. Organs punctuate on occasion, rounding out the vibe, most definitely at home in “Christmas Song,” the joyous instrumental that lifts the lower mid of the album. Wrapping around the breathy, soothing vocals, the overall mood of the album hints backward but also has a solid home in the kind of indie music upheld in the early 2000s, the kind that droned on in the cicada summer on the front lawn, tinny through the headphones of a scratched silver Discman.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Melodic wonders whether viewed as retro twee visionaries or modern ’60s revisionists.
Welcome to your next rabbit hole. Unless, that is, The Aislers Set, Amy Linton, Henry’s Dress, Go Sailor, Track Star, #Poundsign#, Scenic Vermont, and The Fairways are all household names in your house. They were all new to me when I started investigating this week’s album, The Last Match, which had charmed me instantly from the first listen. Belle & Sebastian was an immediate point of reference, mostly due to the trumpet, the melodies, and textures derived from ’60s pop, and the air of naiveté. The latter point is a clever bit of misdirection on the part of both bands as they know exactly what they’re doing. And if I were going to try to put my finger on what that is, it would be to take the professionalism of pop (Brill Building, Phil Spector, etc.), filter it through a fan’s emotional reactions, and then reconstitute it into something made for love instead of money. Okay, that last point may be a little bit cold as I’m sure Goffin/King, Mann/Weil, etc. had plenty of love for what they were doing, but there was also calculation and the constant hunt for hits. The Belle & Sebastian comparison only becomes uncomfortable on songs like “Chicago New York” and “Lonely Side Of Town,” which are lovely but almost lawsuit-close to the work of the Scottish band. Otherwise, Linton and company add their own edge to the ballpark in which both bands play, such as the punky energy in the rush and push of “The Red Door.” The production, also by Linton, is a little murky, which only adds to the delightful handmade quality of The Last Match. One place The Aislers Set has it all over Belle & Sebastian is that they broke up. While I’m sure that will make me sad after I have thoroughly plumbed their three-album discography, at least they didn’t subject me to the indignity of seeing my heroes collaborating with the likes of soporific superstar Norah Jones. I can always admire a band that gets in, sings their piece, and gets out without tarnishing their legacy. Plus, I also have all the other bands I mentioned above to check out!
I really didn’t believe this album was a release from 2000 before I formally looked up the year for convincing through plain empirical evidence. Sure enough, The Last Match was made within a relatively recent span of time, but that’s not the impression it wants to let you come away with when “The Way To Market Station” kicks in. What shot right to the top of the associative mountain in my mind, were thoughts of a band that exists somewhere between like Alvvays (with just a little less glossy reverb), The Roches (with just a little more sonic polish and flare), and solo Ben Folds, circa Rockin’ The Suburbs. There’s a deliberate vintage aesthetic draped over this record, with jangly but not entirely tinny guitars moving the melodies in songs like “Hit The Snow” and flares of Folds’ come up through the plain but endearingly quirky singer-songwriter vocals at play on songs like “Lonely Side Of Town.” Listeners get a nice assorted bouquet of styles and Instrumental qualities that all reflect a sense of musical innocence — whether through displayed minimalist arranging or channeling older popular sound styles like surf rock, girl pop (ugh, I hate writing that label — being a girl is not a genre, but it was a thing so…). However, in light of so much simplicity, the most amusing and ironic thing about The Last Match is in noticing the kind of details, however small, that can remind us just how modern the album is. It’s one thing to hear the percussive splash of a tambourine in “Chicago New York.” It’s another, to realize that the extra moment or so of sustained and extended fade on the instruments metallic rattling, is likely crafted from the application of multiple reverb effects, frequency equalizing bands, and a digital stage of artificial space for the sound to exist within. I’ll never forget hearing the before and after bypass of effects producer Mick Guzauski showed he had applied to a single tambourine hit that recurred throughout the song “Cloud 9,” from 2017 album Automation, by the band Jamiroquai. Such a modest instrumental addition amidst an otherwise packed band arrangement and yet, that little sound stood out for what it was. And then stripped down to its natural self, the poor thing would surely drown in the sea of everything else around it. So while “Chicago New York,” and nothing else on The Last Match comes at you with the kind of inherent intensity that Jamiroquai’s Automation does, that one little bit of extra digital dressing was enough to remind me that the beauty of pursuing older styles in more recent times is that you can bring together pieces of both worlds.
We’ve had a lot of retro sounds on OYR lately, and this week is no different. The Aislers Set absolutely nail the ’60s vibe with the help of some vintage instruments and recording techniques. I most thoroughly enjoyed “Chicago New York” for it’s simple, relatable narrative of pining for an ex living in a different city. It’s a story we’ve heard many times before, but this time with a fresh twist: “As much as I don’t like to fly, I was in the air again / I never thought I’d care again.” Plus, I like the metaphor of two different places — two different cities for two different people, who are obviously in “different places” in their lives. Well played, Aislers. (See what I did there? “Played?” You get it.). Aside from that, I can’t really understand any of the lyrics on the rest of the album, so I’ll just treat it as an instrumental project. I have to admit that my Wu-Tang sensibilities were tickled with “Christmas Song,” which sounds nothing like a Christmas song, save for some occasional sleigh bells. It’s kind of like how the Wu will name their songs some innocuous title based on one or two words from a random lyric within the song. I feel like the one record that totally sums up the project as a whole is “Fairnt Chairnt.” It’s got the flawlessly executed upbeat haze of the 1960s, complete with authentic organs and some endearing handclaps. And also, I can’t understand a word.
The band’s use of space and sound helps push the boundaries on their ill-defined genres, over a decade before the practice was celebrated and imitated.
Is it wrong that my immediate reaction upon listening to The Aislers Set’s The Last Match was a feeling of deep betrayal? Which was then followed quickly by one of chagrin. Betrayal because I’ve known Laura for ages and she never once played this for me, and this lovely little genre-hopping album that wears its influences and its heart on its sleeve is exactly my jam. Chagrin as the reality of the situation hit me that even if she had told me to listen, there’s a very good possibility I would have ignored the recommendation because I’m terrible like that. But then back to betrayal as I continued listening (and I legit loved every song on this record and repeated many of them, as well as listening, like, a dozen times this week) because I nearly always trust Laura’s recommendations since she gets me and she very damn good and well knows that. So, what the hell, Laura? What else have you been holding back?
50 Foot Pop Queenie
I am strongly of the belief that in not too many years from now, jazz-influenced indie rock will have taken over the mainstream. This might be wishful thinking, but if you check out contemporary bands like Crumb, Drugdealer, and Hoops, then watch as their Spotify plays steadily creep into the millions, my theory might not seem so crazy. It’s almost as though The Aislers Set’s The Last Match showed up about twenty years too early, to a party that’s just now about to throw away its guest list and let everybody in on the fun. The melodies and progressions on this record sound very “of the now,” which probably means that back in 2000, the songs would’ve made most listeners scratch their heads before retreating back into the safety of their Coldplay CD. Jazz is slowly creeping back into the mainstream nowadays, thanks to the Kendrick Lamars, Frank Oceans, and Bruno Mars of our world, but in the early 2000s, the most jazz you could squeeze out of your radio would probably come from the latest John Mayer single, under the camouflage of pop production and “I love you, but you don’t love me” lyrics. Songs on The Last Match like “Chicago New York” and “Last Match,” you could easily slide onto an indie rock station these days without anyone batting an eye. Being ahead of your time has its downsides, I suppose, and one of them is that, nearly twenty years after releasing a fantastic album, you end up as a featured artist on a music site for underappreciated albums, as opposed to as a Grammy host or something. Alas, sometimes it’s the hidden gem quality that makes certain albums endure, and I’m happy to be able to say now that I’m one of the ones early to The Aisler Set’s party, even if I’m still showing up way too late.
Short-lived to a degree, the band left behind an impressive discography that holds up in constant listens or annual revisits.
The Last Match took me down an edifying and enjoyable Wikipedia rabbit hole. The first paragraph of The Aislers Set’s Wiki page points to “C86-style British indie pop,” and before I knew what happened, I was knee-deep in learning about the influence of the C86 cassette compilation, which was curated by British music publication NME and released in 1986. That tape is to indie pop what the 1927 Bristol Sessions were to country music: a gathering of like-minded souls who didn’t intentionally set out to gather, but who, by their powers combined, made space for a new, enduring genre of music. I’m certain I’m not the best judge of how cozily the C86 comparison fits The Aislers Set, but thinking about mixtapes changed the way I was hearing The Last Match. While you could certainly point to the guitar as a unifying thread throughout, it’s remarkable how varied the album is from track to track, yet how comfortably shades of The Velvet Underground (“Lonely Side Of Town“) and soupy, late-1960s acid rock (“The Walk“) coexist with those of Badly Drawn Boy (“Chicago New York“) and mid-1960s soul that could have been penned and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland or Phil Spector (“Last Match,” which picks up where the hook from “Then He Kissed Me” left off). It all falls into place so easily. That’s what stands out most to me — how unlabored these ranging, layered references end up sounding. There’s such an elegant understatement to the vocals. I hear disaffection and devotion in perfect balance with one another. (Closing track “Bang Bang Bang” is an especially rewarding study in this specific contrast, and I’m pretty sure it’s kicked my appreciation for Lana Del Rey into an even higher gear. But that’s another rabbit hole entirely.)
Both times that Pitchfork wrote about The Last Match, the ‘60s were mentioned as an important influence. And for me that’s correct as far as criticism goes: I heard The Stooges, Phil Spector, and Velvet Underground, among others, while listening to these songs. But I find that leaving it at “X influence(s)” shortchanges the record, and the band, as a whole. The same goes for the term “throwback.” It’s true that Amy Linton’s voice and songwriting do harken to a time decades before TLM came out, but that’s not the entire story. Or, at least it doesn’t feel that way. A more fitting term is “time capsule” because their in-the-past aesthetic goes beyond their music. A quick look at the band’s official website screams 1998, and despite the fact that they reunited five years ago, they left their site stuck in that time. I can dig it. If you take it all together, it’s like performance art. They existed for a (brief) time and then they broke up. When they got back together, it’s like an entire decade-plus hadn’t gone by; it was just… later. To that end, there’s a certain comfort in preserving a memory or an idea or an emotion tied to a piece of media. (Think of the mosquito encased in amber from Jurassic Park, and you’re close.) Yes, these songs are excellent, but I’d bet there are fans out there that have a former flame or a death in the family appear in their heads when they hear this album. Admittedly, that’s probably true of almost any media, but with The Aislers Set it’s as if it’s built into their DNA.
I’m re-watching The Office again, which isn’t something novel, nor is it something you rarely hear from thirty-somethings today. Anyway, my wife and I have reached the point where our binging slows considerably: Season 8. God, it just sends a shiver down my back. But as bad as that season gets — “Fundraiser” is the worst Office episode by a considerable margin — there are definitely good things to pull out of it. One of the most frequent quotable lines from that season is Robert California tactfully slamming The Black Eyed Peas with a connected train of thought. “I’m so tired of The Black Eyed Peas. It’s rock and roll for people who don’t like rock and roll. It’s rap for people who don’t like rap. It’s pop for people who don’t like pop.” I thought about that quote as I listened to The Last Match this week, but in the tonal opposite of its original meaning. Here, we have a band clearly leaning on their influences, some that were rooted in the advent of a sound (chamber pop, sunshine rock) and others that were more revivalist trends (twee pop, jangle rock). It’s a band anyone who owns a copy of C86 and Magical Mystery Tour is going to swoon over, but it’s not exactly splitting the difference between those titans, even if one is more of an underground sensation and the other is a commercial behemoth. To run back to Bob Kazamakis’ quote, “I’m so inspired by The Aislers Set. It’s infectious for people who want something more twee than twee pop. It’s resonant for people who want something more chamber than chamber pop. It’s quirky for people who want something more indie than indie rock. It’s iridescent for people who want something more sunshine than sunshine rock. It’s impassioned for people who want something more soulful than soul music. And it’s gorgeously enigmatic for people who desperately search for something more than your standard rock band.”
Soul Rotation by The Dead Milkmen
Chosen By SJ Lebowski