The Short Cut
Andrew Kenny has a problem, and he isn't ashamed to admit it: He likes long songs. Songs so long they seem to have no end. Songs so long they bleed onto other bands' records. "Once we got something that we liked," says the singer, guitarist and principal songwriter in the Austin-based drone-rock quintet American Analog Set, "we didn't have a problem playing it for longer than everyone else thought it should be played." It was a dilemma that plagued the band for a good five years, as American Analog Set released records like 1997's excellent From Our Living Room to Yours, which contained blissed-out swaths of warm-and-fuzzy trancedelica that sounded like a bunch of post-collegiates looking for a way to avoid the inevitable. It worked well, and the band members looked set to daydream themselves right into oblivion--or at least defer their college loans for a few more years.
But with 1999's hushed The Golden Band, Kenny and the band took a step back from the pealing guitars and cruise-control rhythms and channeled the nuanced instrumental synergy they had developed by playing 13-minute epics (with two parts, no less) into shorter, more streamlined songs with more pronounced pop edges. "Weather Report," the first song on that album, nearly scrapes the three-minute mark and frames Kenny's sigh of a vocal melody in lightly strummed acoustic guitar and lightly keyed electric piano. It's not exactly the wanky jazz-fusion atmosphere the title seems to promise.
The new Know By Heart travels even further from the band's original locus. The first AAS album recorded for New York indie Tiger Style (after a fruitful three albums with Texas imprint Emperor Jones), it's also the band's most instantly accessible record, popping with hummable melodies and tempos that could accurately be described as "shuffling." Like The Golden Band, Heart kicks off with a delicate acoustic number that never even threatens to overstay its welcome; its title is "Punk as Fuck," and it is gorgeous. "Leave me to die in the comfort of my own home," Kenny sings as keyboards bleep around him and a brushed snare drum taps out a tiny heartbeat underneath. It's the same band that used to stretch guitars and Farfisas to the breaking point, now caught in a different light and at a different age.
"Our first three records were recorded in the exact same way," Kenny says, explaining the changes on Know By Heart. "And these songs came about in a much different way, written differently, recorded differently. Before, we'd just come up with something and jam it out, which lends itself to making longer songs. Everyone's got something really good, and so you draw it out to make sure everyone gets their two cents in. But this time I wrote the songs ahead of time, from front to end, demoed them and passed it out: 'This is what's going on.' And we worked around this template and made it as good as we can."
It's an approach that suits the band well. Most of Know By Heart makes it easy to forget this band hasn't always been content to play pop. Like Sound-Dust, the latest album by veteran groove purveyors Stereolab, the new music asks questions of the pop form itself, pondering how far the elements of a song can be liberated from the medium and still remain a coherent. In recent years, both bands have excelled at turning their work, once celebrated for its commitment to repetition (and innovation therein), into a forum for singsong experimentation--in other words, at making sonic noodling sound like something you'd hear at the mall.
The songs on Know By Heart do that in several ways. The best is the circular riffing on "The Kindness of Strangers," which folds an elliptical guitar-and-vibes motif into a three-minute slice of dream-pop heaven that sounds like Tortoise, if that Chicago outfit cared about three-minute slices of dream-pop heaven. The title track does similar things, again making a lead instrument out of snare brushes. "Like Foxes through Fences" and "Million Young," on the other hand, apply a motorized pulse to the fragile guitar-bass-keys web, yielding a more menacing sound than any the band has yet made, but one that evaporates into the ether at the slightest touch. Still, throughout, Kenny keeps the compositions close to earth, nailing down what used to float away.
"The reason we made shorter songs is because on each record, the shortest song would be the one we were most attached to," he says. "There's been a couple of times where we thought, 'This should be much longer; this would totally work.' But then I think, 'Well, all the other parts are gonna get demolished.' We've gotta find that balance."
Despite the seemingly effortless grace that defines much of Know By Heart, Kenny says finding that equilibrium wasn't easy. "We've never thrown away so much stuff as we did for this record. I guess out of the 12 [songs] that made the record, we demoed about 20. We tried some things, and some stuff didn't work out and got ditched. In our nature, we play something twice through, and that's it. But this time we had to crush some little flowers to grow big weeds."
True to post-collegiate form, though, the songwriter's quick to point out that the new direction is as organic as the acoustic guitars that make up much of Know By Heart's sound world. "I don't want to overstate our importance in the musical community. I mean, we just sit down and start writing, and that's what comes out. There were times years ago when we'd sit down and write, and it would sound like we were covering ourselves. So maybe we did say, 'Let's do something different. Let's play instruments we know how to play, in the style of the band we're in, but let's not play songs that sound like our songs." We don't feel like we're musical missionaries or anything, but I think we've done a pretty good job of it."
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