Band Apart

It's Friday night and New York City is gearing up for its 13th consecutive weekend of rain. Thirteen weekends, 13 rains: dull, bland, constant rain; drizzles thin as mist; warm sudden gales that strike and retreat like guerrilla warriors. More. But there's no kidding around about this rain, not tonight: It's like a temper tantrum of the damp. Epic. And weirder--cold. The world is ending. It's obvious now. Tomorrow it's summer, and tonight--on the second-longest day of the year--the sky is pitch black at six. Bring on the horses...

CRACK!! And as though you could summon Armageddon just by thinking it, the sky lights up in time with a peal of murderous thunder. The storm has centered itself over the downtown music venue Knitting Factory, just as the doors open for tonight's American Analog Set show. Band front man Andrew Kenny watches pensively from the bar as sullen, sodden fans file in from outside. CRACK!

"You want a drink?" He starts to wave at the bartender, and suddenly it's apparent that Andrew Kenny is cheerful. Which shouldn't seem odd, until you consider those 13 weekends of rain and the not-unrelated fact that no one--no one--in this city is cheerful. Except maybe the civil engineers who keep an eye on the water tables.

"Well, I do kind of think the weather works in our favor," Kenny suggests, smiling between sips of his beer. One assumes that by "our" he's referring not to society writ large, or humanity writ larger, but very specifically to American Analog Set and tonight's concert. "I mean, music has different seasons, you know? And I'm not sure we're a summer band."

True enough. American Analog Set's melodic drone-rock is like the musical equivalent of the wool blanket you wrap up in when you've resigned yourself to the blizzard outside--fuzzy, yet warm and embracing. Mother Nature, it seems, is merely accommodating the band's fractured touring schedule. Blame them: Kenny and his cohorts had other things to do this winter--so winter had obliged by staying put.

"The thing is," Kenny explains, "the band isn't a full-time gig for any of us. It's more like a hobby...we get together, make some music and go back to our regular lives. I don't know that we even think of ourselves as a 'band,' the way, like..." By a flourish of the hand Kenny indicates the group loudly soundchecking onstage. "We barely rehearse." He cracks a mischievous grin. "We're barely even musicians!"

Whatever psychological need forces budding biochemist Andrew Kenny to minimize his musical talent, it's not strong enough to tamp it down entirely. Founded way back when in Kenny's native Fort Worth, diverted to Austin (the undergrad years) and now chugging along late-era Pavement style, with Kenny relocated to New York City and his bandmates likewise pursuing other interests in the bulk of their time, the band's continued success in churning out beautifully mopey music isn't as accidental as Kenny makes it seem. Or--if it is that accidental--the members of American Analog Set are musical geniuses: Even the notoriously flinty indie-rock Web site Pitchfork routinely fetes their endeavors.

Kenny shrugs.

"I don't know--we do love making music, but it's rare when we have the chance to do it, especially now." He goes on to explain that the band's recently released fifth LP, Promise of Love, only saw light of day because he happened to find the session tapes while unpacking his Brooklyn apartment.

"It was like, 'Oh, yeah; we should probably give this to the label,'" he says with another grin. "So I fooled around with the mixes over winter break, handed it over and promptly forgot all about it again. I think our fans--I mean, I find it crazy that we have fans, but I guess we do--are more on top of the band than we are."

Perhaps. It's true that more ambitious bands would have followed up the critical and cult success of American Analog Set's 2001 release, Know by Heart, with another album of even tauter pop songcraft. Instead, Promise of Love follows AAS's most accessible album with one that hearkens back to its earlier, more ersatz recordings.

"There was no agenda," Kenny acknowledges. "Whereas with Know by Heart, we definitely set out to write, you know, pop songs, this time we just kind of got together and fooled around."

If Kenny's sincere about his band's lack of 1) cohesion, 2) vision, 3) talent and 4) musical ability, then Promise of Love is the result of beginner's luck that's lasted more than seven years. The record suggests at once the menaced post-rock of Slint's Spiderland, recent Yo La Tengo's tenderness and textural subtlety and the intimacy of Bedhead. It's a delicate brew, which Kenny cavalierly suggests is completely deformed in concert.

"We didn't have much of a chance to rehearse before these shows," Kenny acknowledges. "As it is, my professors think I'm doing lab work in Austin," he adds as an aside. "They'd freak out if they found out I was touring instead. But at this point, we have enough of a back catalog that we pretty much know what works live and what doesn't. And we just aren't tight enough musicians--separately or together--to take a record out and play all the new songs the way other bands do. So we usually stick to the safe numbers, and very occasionally, if there's a good crowd, we'll throw in something we're more unsure of.

"Every time we play, it's like tempting fate," he continues. "Frankly, I don't know why people put up with it. Like, I went to see Broken Social Scene the other night. Eight people up onstage, so together, and they really know what they're doing. That's a band! We're just people who like playing."

He swigs the last of his beer and curls his long frame into a full body shrug.

"But for us, that's part of the adventure of playing live, you know--the possibility of a gruesome train wreck."

CRACK! The sky splits in half again, and the floor shakes a little. The weather, at least, believes in American Analog Set. It's an hour until showtime, and tonight at least, the signs look auspicious.

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Maya Singer

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