The Joy of Set
Evidence suggests that Fort Worth's American Analog Set may be effective in managing killer combinations of adult stress and juvenile attention-deficit disorder. Case in point: A six-year-old boy was recently observed repeatedly tossing a red plastic Slinky down a spiral staircase, vandalizing the banister and kicking approximately two-thousand Lego pieces across a floor. His aunt, meanwhile, sponged up spilled lemonade, audibly thanked God for contraceptives, and slid American Analog Set's latest release, The Golden Band, into a nearby CD player. Within minutes, the boy sighed, stretched and approached a table at which he would sit, contemplatively drawing an abstract picture full of curvaceous lines, for the next half hour. "If we can quiet the kids down, now that's a plus," says singer/guitarist Andrew Kenny with a hint of Texas drawl. "That's the most pleasant surprise I've had in a while. The most common thing is when people come up and say, 'You know, I get high to your record all the time.' I think, 'Gosh, is this why I'm doing this?'"
The dreamy cantos Kenny weaves with organist/pianist Lisa Roschman, drummer Mark Smith, bassist Lee Gillespie and guitarist Shawn O'Keefe court a certain spareness, a quiet refinement that manages to steer clear of sterility. Song arrangements, while lean, are often as capacious as the night sky, with infusions of warm bass, wistful harmonies and woody marimba passages. Gillespie's bass bleeds through a vintage organ hum and a meteor shower of melodies, lonely moonwalk instrumentals reel endlessly, and cuts phase into one another without a seam. The sound of American Analog Set would no doubt enhance any altered state you'd want to pursue, but it also elevates the more mundane of domestic tasks.
"People say, 'I love to vacuum with your record on,'" the singer confesses. "I've actually heard that twice now." Other activities compatible with the music of American Analog Set include falling asleep, waking up, cooking dinner, painting toenails and fanning your dearest with a feather.
Kenny views his oeuvre in much the same way. "I don't have anything against people talking at shows," he says. "I'm not one of those egotistical musicians who goes nutso when people talk. I think our music is good background music for stuff that may go on in your life normally, anyway."
That the band's tunes are unobtrusive does not mean that they are weak or insignificant. Rather, the opposite is true. Unlike the many acts that rely on decibel overload to prop up numbers that would otherwise fail to impress, the American Analog Set emanates an understated strength. "With me at least, it's not what you say but how you say it," explains Kenny. "It's like when you listen to your mom talk to you. I could listen to my mom say anything. I just really like the way her voice sounds. I like the way subtle, kind of quiet music sounds. I like some loud music, that's no lie. But I don't have any desire to play it loud or fast. We're one of those bands where at practice, we're constantly telling each other, 'Could you please turn it up? 'Cause I can't hear you at all.'"
American Analog's hushed delicacy fizzled like a wet Roman candle when the band members hit the road with their first offering, The Fun of Watching Fireworks. "We used to get our feelings hurt," admits Kenny, who endured such comments as "Gawd, these guys do not rock!" on a near-nightly basis. "Early on, we couldn't really pick who we played with," he says, "so we'd get wedged in the middle of two bands with much more volume and get kind of crushed."
Two albums and countless dates later, the Set has adopted a resilient attitude, aided no doubt by the favorable press they've garnered; Request, for one, named the group to its exclusive "Indie Bands That Matter" list in 1997. "Now we take it as it comes and have a tremendous time touring," says Kenny. "There's still the wipeout danger, but with the newer material, there's more of it we can do well."
On The Golden Band, the set's third album, the smooth minimalism remains, clearly benefiting the transition to live performance. "We gravitate toward 'the simpler the better,'" Kenny explains. "On the whole, I like playing out a lot more now, so even though we don't do it that often, I want to take as much of the record with us as possible. I don't want to have 50 percent of the record with minor orchestration on it that we can't bring along." As a result, gone are the tape pops and the ratcheting crickets of the previous long-players. "We could have done it again but it would have been one more song on the record that we couldn't play or even practice after we recorded it," he says. "It wouldn't make any sense for us to keep on going with it."
In general, the changes that distinguish The Golden Band from the band's debut and 1997's From Our Living Room to Yours are barely noticeable; the trio of LPs runs on a spun-honey continuum. "I bet anybody who would sit down and listen to these records would think, 'You know, this sounds like the same damn record over and over again,'" Kenny says. "But to me it sounds leaps-and-bounds different. I listen to the new record, and it's exactly how we are like right now. It's more intricate, more well-thought-out. But you could be thinking this is where the last record left off and we just picked up the needle."
The consistency may be due in part to the fact that the ensemble eschews studio recording--out of concern that an outsider's sensibility might pollute their music. "We did record two songs at a studio one time about four years ago," recalls Kenny, "but it didn't sound quite like we do, which is not to say anything bad about them. They just didn't take a very good picture that day." From American Analog's inception, when the members stole away for a week to a little house on Possum Kingdom Lake in north-central Texas, they have preferred the luxuries of their own hearths to those of any pay-by-the-hour space, adding themselves to the groundswell of acts successfully taking the route of independent production. The label that released all three of American Analog's CDs, Emperor Jones, a tentacle of the now-defunct Trance imprint, had no qualms about that.
"We just like recording at home now because it's more homey," says Kenny. "We feel more comfortable recording on our own and not having someone we don't know control all the levels and things like that--pick the mikes for you and pick the sound for you. Looking back on that first time in the studio, it would have been a bad idea for us to go ahead with that and just take what we could get."
Instead, the band decided to rely on internal consensus, even down to the final touches. "Whenever we mix a record, we all sit in front of the speakers and we mix--not by committee entirely," Kenny adds, "but everybody has their two cents to put in. Since we all like the way we sound on record, we kind of want to reproduce that, even subconsciously. Maybe it's because by default we haven't gone for anything specific that we end up sounding the way we do."
Thanks to this self-contained process, the best aspects of American Analog Set persist on The Golden Band. Most of the cuts are built upon lulling repetitions that never grow stale. "I hear bits of songs from really average mainstream music and think, 'This should be ten times longer 'cause this is really, really cool,'" says Kenny, who denies any attempt to affect the mental state of his audience, like a guru oiling up a crowd with ragas. "When we play something for an extended period of time, it's because we like playing it and it sounds good to us. It's not our mission to take people to another layer of the game." Yet, he states, "it's definitely food for our soul."
The fare served up on The Golden Band doesn't exactly sprawl like that which preceded it, though the melding of the tunes makes the shortness of individual numbers hard to detect. "Some of them did go on for longer in their earliest incarnation," Kenny says. "Before, we were getting by with eight, but this time we had twelve pieces that worked well together. This record was going to be seventy minutes long unless we whittled it down some. Some we left at full length, others we abbreviated a little so they wouldn't get out of hand." That's not to say that the briefer creations won't grow a few inches in concert, but the band members have done a little math and realized you can't have it both ways.
"If we're going to drive all the way to Denver to play, we should play more than six songs. If we're gonna do that, we should play songs that aren't eight minutes long so we can fit more in, because we're not gonna play them double speed," Kenny calculates. Whatever the equation, an hour spent basking in the golden band provides the peace and pleasure of multiple flat-on-your-back cloud reveries. "We have a wicked back catalogue to draw from," Kenny promises, "so I want to play more songs. Ten, maybe even twelve--who cares?"
American Analog Set, with Macha. 9 p.m. Sunday, July 25, Lion's Lair, 2202 East Colfax Avenue, $5, 303-320-9200.
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