Issue #24: The Golden Band by The American Analog Set
July 11, 2016
Released On July 6, 1999
Released By Emperor Jones
The cult of mezzo piano.
It’s hard to separate my first encounter with this record from the place it and the other AmAnSet albums now occupy. What began as a bit of innocuous indie-pop — just a shade twee on the continuum — has become tenaciously engrained in my musical psyche. You might assume that it would require an album of great intensity to have done so, and yet it proves the power of resolved restraint. The title feigns the ostentatious, but we find that it’s in accord with their somber wit — akin to naming of a track Punk As Fuck” on the following album. Just past the title, “Weather Report” begins a thematic thread of music scene tension and gentle snark with the lines “It’s indie on the radio waves” and “The cool’s moving out and moving in, moving in and moving out.” Deliberateness is everything on these recordings as deceptively simple arrangements find multiple instrument voicings in unison. It’s exacting minimalism, but with a tender touch — and it drives me wild. The level of craft and care is a product of an album completely self-produced and recorded using tape machines.
The Golden Band also found me while in the throws of such catalogs by Bedhead and Pedro the Lion, bands also evoking a pseudo modernist/constructivist with a heart on the sleeve approach. (Side note: all music of this ilk has played into a personal recursive infatuation with the bygone UK label Sarah Records.) Continuity is esteemed as the tracks flow one to the next. And while the songs are on the whole shorter than on previously released The Fun Of Watching Fireworks and From Our Living Room To Yours, the nocturne of “New Drifters” is divided into four seamless acts. Andrew Kenny and company exude the uncanny ability to drone and gloriously linger on uncomplicated musical phrases, elevating emotives typically cast of as banal to a more majestic state.
The centerpiece of “It’s All About Us” encapsulates everything that makes this band the cat’s pajamas — a warm spaciousness, non-formulaic structures, and delicate crescendos. Every moment is conceived, no filler here. In addition, they’ve locked into what can only be described as a magical sonic palette, employing a Jazzmaster with echoplex, a vibraphone, a Rhodes piano, and Farfisa organ. All of these things, my weakness. The drums, quietly jazzy, but forcibly snappy both meld with and playfully antagonize droning elements. Their music is a true invoking of gestalt, and some of the most influential and enjoyable material I’ve encountered. It’s all about interplay and settling into something, rather than hammering out a bunch of sound. It celebrates the tweefully haunting and the slow burn. Whether you call them goose pimples, chill bumps, or just the chills, I get them every time it arrives at the album’s conclusion with “Will The Real Danny Radnor Please Stand?” — a song unfettered from all extraneous elements, just a strikingly clear melody leaving us with the line “There are angels / they are angels / who see angels all around them.” In the end, melodicism always wins.
Consider this a tome chock-full of unassumingly and parasitically catchy phrases. While volume has an overplaced importance in much of the rock sphere, it rarely has bearing on what will endure. Perhaps the lack of pretense and in-your-face-ness is key to its insidious charm. To me it’s that and a masterfully crafted album that will always sit alongside its successor Know By Heart as one of the most admired albums in my library. The good new for you, it’s never too late to become a convert.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
The golden band in golden rays of glory.
I was running around the Museum District in Richmond during halftime of the Euro Cup final, and street after street was empty. Maybe it was the game, or maybe people just wanted to ride out another 90-degree day indoors. Regardless, the emptiness made me look around more than I normally would. I saw lights I’d never noticed above familiar storefronts, and elaborate systems of right angles forming the scalps of brick apartment buildings. I realized that the same thing was happening in my ears, as I was giving The Golden Band one last listen, and thanks to The American Analog Set’s remarkable sense of economy, I was able to pick out specific sounds and relish them one at a time. Muted snare hits in the “New Drifters” sequence. The wavy way (vibraphone?) notes dissipate in “the title track.” The simple pleasure of octaves in “A Schoolboy’s Charm.” Looking back, I’m reminded of the thesis of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” The Golden Band seems engineered to help you look around, from its clean arrangements to the way extended, slowly evolving instrumental sections give you time to appreciate each element. The total effect is profoundly peaceful. I’d heard The American Analog Set’s name a zillion times, but this is the first album of theirs I’ve listened to. It might be my favorite Off Your Radar selection yet.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
My favorite late ’90s emo trope is jazzy drums. There were so many drum brushes on all my favorite records of this time. I don’t know why this is not still a thing. They go with everything, especially the brand of gentle, almost ambient indie rock performed by American Analog Set on their third record The Golden Band. In last week’s review of Grouper’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, a few of my fellow (amazing) writers used the word ambient to discuss Liz Harris’s music, a term usually describing that which is minimal, atmospheric, and/or unobtrusive. Harris often uses her voice as another instrument, exploring its musical qualities. While AmAnSet was never a part of any ambient “scene,” Andrew Kenny’s voice is so low in the mix and matches the rhythm and melody of his bandmates so perfectly that I sometimes forget he is even singing. While listening to The Golden Band in the car, I became entranced during “New Drifters II” and only got out of it when Kenny sang “Californ-I-A,” Beach Boys style. It truly is a remarkable collection of songs that I enjoyed much more than I expected to. From cursory listens to later AmAnSet records, it sounds like they abandoned the atmospheric, jazzier sound for a pop-influenced indie rock one that is more straightforward. The Golden Band should therefore be cherished for its rhythmic loveliness, and (you know I had to mention it again) jazz drums.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
It’s a nice transition from last week’s album to this week’s, The Golden Band. The American Analog Set works in a soft acoustic, low-key sound that definitely feels of a piece with Grouper, albeit with a more traditionally rock-oriented sensibility. The record moves seamlessly between shorter, catchier tracks and longer, sometimes instrumental pieces that create an album experience both instantly likable and wonderfully immersive. It’s got hooks and vibes aplenty, from the beautifully, hypnotically repetitive “A Good Friend Is Always Around” to the jazzy last hurrah of penultimate track “I Must Soon Quit The Scene.” I loved all the vibraphone throughout the record; it’s such an interesting instrument that doesn’t get used enough (Bat for Lashes’ “Seal Jubilee” is another vibraphone-heavy favorite of mine). The drums on this record were also great, as is immediately apparent from the groove that sets opener “Weather Report” going. One other detail I liked was how the guitars were mic-ed so closely that you could hear the squeak from the strings as Andrew Kenny changes chords, most noticeable on “It’s All About Us“. It’s so prominent that it lends an intimacy to the songs that you’d lose with a more “perfect” recording. Really, this is just a solidly consistent, cohesive record from start to finish.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
This week has been utterly brutal. The kind of devastation that sends you scrambling for comfort, to indulge in the things that you bring you the most happiness with a renewed sense of vigor and urgency. For me, musically, that tends to be bright, soaring pop songs. They act as a form of concentrated sunlight for my soul. The American Analog Band offers the antithesis of bright and soaring, and as such, proved near impossible for me to immerse my in this week. “The title track“, however, did lodge itself in my brain. Something about this simple, gentle instrumental loop holds so many contemplative possibilities. It sounds like meditation. It sounds like remorse. It sounds like a copy machine in an office, running long after everyone has gone home. I’ve cycled it back three times while writing this and I feel like it’s simultaneously driving me to madness and serenity. I think what I love about this (do I love it, or am I just fascinated by it?) is the way that it exists in the in-between, the calm right before a moment of importance. I may find The Golden Band impenetrable right now, but I could not find “The Golden Band” any more alluring.
Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist
This is comfort music. The Golden Band is the perfect album to play on the back patio while drinking your wife’s favorite merlot in an attempt to get her to do freaky stuff by the fire pit once the sun goes down. Or, maybe you’re just having a few friends over to try your wife’s favorite merlot, while sitting by your brand new fire pit. I don’t know… whatever floats your boat. In any case, the minimal, bare bones approach taken by The American Analog Set is truly divine. Each instrument plays an extremely meaningful role on each song — the MVP being the electric organ. I’m not quite sure which organ they use, but the ever present chords are lush and fluffy, while at the same time providing the backbone for the standout tracks. I was blown away by the three song run of “It’s All About Us” into “A Schoolboy’s Charm” and “The Wait.” Over this stretch, the organ chords feel like a set of fresh sheets on a chilly night. Freaky stuff, baby. Oh no, I totally just realized what my neighbors were doing all those nights in the back yard. No wonder they always had so many tiki torches. Damn you, The American Analog Set!
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
As bright and focused as this record can get, the color scheme and scattered direction of this picture probably illustrates the music the best.
Andrew Kenny’s reputation as a songwriter predates my introduction to The American Analog Set. Featured on a split with Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Kenny’s subtle, but haunting wordplay helped to balance the release that showcased two of the strongest songwriters in the world of indie rock. Several years later and many conversations with Matt Klimas about Kenny, I arrive once again with a record that tells a fascinating story about a band who faced a number of telling hardships. Exhausted from tour and coming home penniless, The American Analog Set found themselves spread out all across Texas. They weren’t rehearsing and shows were becoming more and more infrequent. A tour with The Magnetic Fields would bring the band closer together and lead into the writing for The Golden Band. In many ways, these experiences could explain why The Golden Band felt like The American Analog Set had reset everything that audiences had come to expect. They wrote minimally and let instrumentals take the bulk of the middle of the record. The songs never lost their complexity. They simply existed in different parameters of the American Analog Set sound. “A Schoolboy’s Charm” is a warm, summer lullaby that can be summed up in one lyric. “Do you have to be so good?” easily describes what impossible affection can feel like. This can be inspired by a person close to you or by something contained in the world surrounding you. The crux of The Golden Band might be the four parts of “New Drifters.” On past releases, this song might have existed as just one song with each change perpetuating the next one and so forth. It’s a way for the band to allow each segment of the song feel pronounced and deserving of instrumental interplay amongst the main composition. And even more so, “New Drifters” leads right into “the title track” of the album. It might be my favorite for how gentle the vibes play throughout and how bare the song feels at first. One might expect for the song to eventually elevate from the underlying scratches beneath the surface, heartbeat rhythms and gentles vibes, but that isn’t the card that The American Analog Set is attempting to play with The Golden Band. As the record finishes with “Will The Real Danny Radnor Please Stand?,” the final words of the record feel like the flipside of the sentiment expressed in “A Schoolboy’s Charm.” “There are angels / they are angels / who see angels / all around them” is what Kenny leaves you with as the record concludes. After the release of The Golden Band, the misfortunes of a tour would push the band even further, yet the triumphs of The Golden Band is what helped the American Analog Set move forward and continue to push their unique approach to indie pop. This is a record that could only be created by an artist’s desire to create despite the hardships they face ahead. The intricacies and true beauty found throughout The Golden Band is a true delight and a record I hope to revisit for years to come.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
Let’s be clear. The American Analog Set’s The Golden Band is not a record to wake you up in the morning. It is, however, a record, to listen to while sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee while you attempt to wake up. And that’s what I prefer on a morning where the sun is just coming up and you have some time to reflect on the upcoming day. This record is a relaxing trip through ambient sounds and notes and I found it very refreshing to listen to while getting ready for the day.
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
American Analog Set fall into the broad category of post-rock that seems to attract plentiful young men with long, well-conditioned hair, clothing in muted colors, and neatly trimmed goatees. The first time I really became aware that this was an entire demographic within the modern musical underground was at a Mercury Program show. As I looked around at them all, I thought “I’m looking at the next generation of prog-rock fans.” And it’s true — my friend who most neatly fits this aesthetic is not only way into Tortoise, Mogwai, and yes, The Mercury Program, but also Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and many ’70s bands from the original prog-rock era. I’m sure he’d find a lot to like in American Analog Set’s The Golden Band, and I’ve found some nice things myself — in particular a mellow, evening-ending vibe. American Analog Set could definitely close out a night of several hip indie acts, cooling down a room full of sweaty hipsters and leading them through some pensive mind-movies before sending them on their way to grab post-show pancakes and catch Ubers at 2 AM. The fact that American Analog Set will occasionally incorporate whispered vocals into their sound is almost unobtrusive enough to make you forget that they’re not an instrumental band, but those lushly melodic whispers do provide essential ingredients in the mix on tunes like “A Schoolboy’s Charm” and “It’s All About Us.” Hell, upon checking back, I’m now realizing that many of these songs seem to have vocals on them — I really didn’t catch a lot of them when I had this album on in the background over the past week. This fact points out what’s really important here, though, which is the sound of the instruments — the humming organ, the placid yet unrelenting beat, the ringing, undistorted guitars. This listening experience is never a particularly agitated or even energetic one, but it’s certainly immersive, and will take you through many different emotional soundscapes over the course of an evening. Take a trip.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Andrew Kenny may be the focal point of the band, but it takes careful hands from the rest of these members to deliver a sound this locked in.
A man stands at the fridge, peering in, bathed in the mixture of internal and external light sources, an ordinary activity heightened by the quality of the photographer’s technique. This indelible picture by Philip-Lorca diCorcia floated across the screen of my mind as I listened to The Golden Band by The American Analog Set, inspired by the stillness of their sound. Instead of propelling time like many songs do, these tracks seem to represent stasis, like snapshots, but elevated — a work of art, not your dad’s askew shot of the family reunion. There’s also a warmth that embraces you when you listen: these are nice people you think, thoughtful and compassionate. The album is all of a piece for me; I don’t dwell too much on individual tracks. But there are standouts, like “Weather Report,” the opening cut, a jewel-like representation of their style. The drums played with brushes, the limpid keyboards, gentle guitars and hushed vocals, and the way it manages to have energy without trying too hard. It’s like the great lost track from The Fawn by The Sea And Cake, a record I love dearly. The other song that sticks is the wonderfully named “I Must Soon Quit The Scene,” a pensive exploration of hanging xylophone notes, pushy drums, and a two-note bass line. The introduction lasts almost half the length of the song and I wish it went on for approximately… ever. In fact, I’m almost a little disappointed when the vocals slide in, breaking the spell. That there is a spell to be broken is an accomplishment in its own right, but no big deal to The Analogs. That’s just their way.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
The American Analog Set fits perfectly after Grouper on a mixtape, if you haven’t been listening while reading along to Off Your Radar. I know AmAnSet is considered lo-fi, but the fidelity is absolutely perfect for this project. It sounds like The Golden Band might have been recorded at home, on a cassette 4-track, late at night. I can just picture them recording in a wood paneled basement, dimly lit by couple of vintage brass lamps in the shape of eagles. A few miss match chairs next to an unused exercise bike, and the room has that distinctive damp smell. I’m also reminded of how much my former bandmate loved this band and was definitely influenced but this sound. I’m assuming Danny Radnor is a reference to a character played by Will Oldham? Tweet at me if I’m wrong.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
I’ll be honest, I had a really hard time getting on with The Golden Band this week. A lot of the time I have to be in a really specific mood to fully enjoy this type of ambient indie, and my current playlist is full of current up-tempo British indie. The tonal shift in listening to American Analog Set to review their third record is something I found particularly jarring. This genre of music isn’t really made in Britain, where the current indie and alternative scenes are mostly producing higher tempo tracks that incorporate elements of dance. So I spent most of the week questioning if I could review this album fairly based on its own merits. I also blamed Brexit. However, whilst cooking for my girlfriend this week, I put the record on as background music and it was then that it really clicked for me. The long instrumentals, Andrew Kenny’s hushed vocals, the slow, short songs that don’t build to a traditional climax; The Golden Band provided the perfect ambiance for date night. Now, granted on the face of it, that doesn’t sound much like a glowing recommendation. But if you’re into low-fi ambient indie, The American Analog Set are producing great work. Sometimes you need that record that’s going to provide the ideal backdrop for an evening. The Golden Band isn’t an album you’ll dance or singalong too, but it is wonderfully crafted music that certainly earns a spot in your record collection.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
With the Grouper album last week, one of the difficulties I had was that I couldn’t hear the singer clearly enough to make out most of the words she was singing. This week, with The American Analog Set, I can hear the singer, Andrew Kenny’s voice very well, but I don’t think I’ve retained, or maybe even really listened to, a single lyric of this album. I think that will come later, but for now, I let the warm textures of this album, including Kenny’s voice, wash over me and heal me. I almost feel like I’m not listening to this album intensely enough because it’s so soothing, which is not common for albums that I listen to for the first time. I love where they’ve put the drums in the mix. I feel like they’re pulled a little more to the front, but they’re so gently played, even on the “harder” songs like “New Drifters II,” that it was a very good call. You need to hear the intricacies of what’s going on there. I’m also a sucker for songs that melt into each other. That happens less on this album than I thought it did when I was only listening to it in my car, but it’s still definitely a recurring device and I love it. Overall, this is an album that I can see putting on after a hard day or in the middle of traffic or after an argument. It touches something in my brain that makes the static of anxiety fade away. And that is a very valuable thing.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
America sucked last week. Normally, I wouldn’t bring things like this into my write-up for OYR (or I’d do so more eloquently), but I felt overly inclined to do so for three reasons today. One, last week was just unbelievably horrible; two, the band’s name does have America in it (‘Murica!); and three, this was the perfect remedy for my heartbroken soul. I could feel the calming effect the first time I put the record on around Wednesday and as more news kept coming out and foolish people continued to willingly prove their ignorance, I found myself retreating into The Golden Band‘s welcoming tones that offered me soothing musical solace. At first, I wondered if it was the record I was loving or just that it was much-needed distraction, but every time I thought this, something would happen to make me realize that it was a record truly that good. “A Schoolboy’s Charm” would remind me that “Caroline” might be the most melodic name in the entire world (just ask Brian Wilson and Neil Diamond). The segueway from “Schoolboy” into the “The Wait” would be just so perfect, with the closing of the latter being absolutely clear and impactful. I’d marvel at how that restrained, yet soaring vocal moment would lead to the most ambitious moment of the record as the “New Drifters” suite began. I’d get lost in that pocket dimension completely with all the little quirks and shifts offering endlessly eye-pops and gaps. That would continue well into the title track where I found myself even more lost, thanks in part to the time-bending drum beat mercilessly baiting my innate curiosity. “I Must Soon Quit The Scene” would instantly grab my attention next and by the time Danny Radnor finally began to stand at the conclusion, I found myself just amazed at what I’d heard. Each time I finished it, I would just sit stoically in this fuzzy space before hitting repeat, blissfully oblivious to what was going on in the world. If it was simply a much-needed distraction, my heart and mind would have instantly gone out to those people who senselessly lost their lives last week. But they didn’t. They probably should have, but they didn’t because The Golden Band was no distraction. It was a recreation of a mindset that effortlessly transported me into another place and just left me in the grey area in between when it was done. Each time, I’d get the choice which way to go: back to reality or back into this golden slowcore. By now, you should know which option I’d still pick today.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Short Eyes by Curtis Mayfield
Chosen By Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford