A Sunny Day in Glasgow
By Conrad Amenta | 29 October 2010
A Sunny Day in Glasgow put out my favorite album of 2009, and it’s aged well. Ashes Grammar remains a wildly kinetic, affectionate, melodic pinwheel of a record that hums with equal parts enthusiasm and melancholy, packed to bursting with content—riding what comes through clearly as that wave of rare, serendipitous inspiration. It received appropriately laudatory reviews, but it didn’t an elevator pitch and so it didn’t blow open the game; explaining what made that hazy psych-rock record special was never as simple as playing its best song (“Failure”). Ashes Grammar is that quintessential record’s record, less uncompromising than too huge and intertwined for summary. It plays like an anachronism, a remnant of the days of tactile media when interconnectedness meant interdependence rather than being fractured but similar.
It’s about two years later, and one of Philadelphia’s best bands is self-releasing their follow-up as a free download over on their website. I wasn’t expecting Autumn, Again to adhere to Ashes‘ gateway-drug possibilities—that album was so obviously of a moment, a kicked-in door, that to expect the same would be to deny this talented band the vital capriciousness of fickle humanity. And besides, Scribble Mural Comic Journal (2007) was different, and amazing in its own way. But Autumn, Again does sound like that comedown from the wild high, a glum coming to terms, as sobering as the season to which it refers.
So I’m torn between acknowledging that the band’s devotion to its muse generated an incredible record, and that that same adherence has now produced this: a stately, composed, generous album that dabbles in textures, renders its rhythms amorphous rather than organic, seems unlashed from the orbit of its older sister. And is not terribly fun to listen to. It’s a mature album, with a well-defined sense of space, but its dynamics are purposefully tapered and it’s arrangements are often only anemically developed.
See “Fall in Love,” which maintains the band’s penchant for intricate melody. But where Ashes might have stomped joyfully up and down with enormous drums, Autumn provides the paper-thin thisping sound of a drum machine pattering inadequately in the background. The song isn’t driven along so much as borne coincidentally toward its conclusion. “Moments on the Lawn” and “Sigh, Inhibitionist (Come All Day With Me)” are a nod to dream pop’s roots in New Wave—to Depeche Mode and the Birthday Party—but are thinned out. When their choruses hit, voices layered over synth noise, the drums are barely alive and the bottom drops out on the whole affair. It’s only with “Drink Drank Drunk,” halfway through the album, that what sounds like a drum kit is used.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow are still extremely good at weaving the downtempo, ambient bits of their formula (“Petition to Refrain from Repetition,” for one example) between more conventionally arranged pop songs—of cutting both instrumentation and vocals from the same aesthetic cloth—but Autumn, Again sounds like a record of outtakes from the inspired Ashes Grammar. It works as an introduction of sorts to this young band, who have a surplus of great ideas (and, hey, it’s a free download). But it’s little more than a starting point, a segway, an ice-breaker, to the much meatier discussion that Ashes provokes.