#15   SUMMER 2003



by Jared Stanley


An Unwilling Wobble

The Aislers Set "How I Learned to Write Backwards"
(Suicide Squeeze/Slumberland)

If anyone has grown tired of reading sentimental, mushy, overly rhapsodic reviews in this space, shit, sorry. It's not that I don't hate almost every record that comes out these days...I do, I do! That's why I do this thing instead of short blurbs nowadays. And shit, this isn't fucking Pitchfork. Shit, if I wanted to be a Pitchforker, I'd bang my head against a cinderblock about fifty times before writing anything, just to get stupid enough.

This is going to be the best record of 2003 (yahwn) and I don't have to hear anything else this year to know it (on second thought now that Deerhoof is a pop band...). The Aislers have produced their most nuanced, and I'll just say it, difficult, album of their career. Is it a complete success? Not entirely. It's not the kind of album you want to put on while you're making dinner simply because the emotional range is so extreme that you'd start to think you were missing something. You know, it takes some concentration.

After two albums of reverb drenched, ravaged, somewhat sickly romantic pop with a healthy dose of world weary D.T.'s, the band stretches out. Their first, "Terrible Things Happen," demonstrated the rare talent that can actually make a "record alone in your room" kind of cliched thingy work. It sounded tired, pooped out and the music drifts in and out of synch in a pretty compelling (not annoying) way. The second album, "The Last Match," was a more rockin' affair full of Merseybeat farfisa shit and a whole lotta mod-punk. This one, while superficially similar to the others, actually significantly redefines and reinterprets the impulses of each of those records, adding spikiness from the whole Total Shutdown/Erase Errata school that inherited pop's little bitty crown in San Francisco (even W. Walter moved out there). I think this has kind of alienated the fans gained with "The Last Match" but will, I'm pretty confident, bring them a new audience, you know, a little more experimental-ish - you know, fuckin' nurds like you.

Hopefully Belle & Sebastian will never be mentioned in their reviews again.

It's a stroke and punch kind of album. The first tune, "Catherine Says," begins with glockenspiel and unironically brings up God's only begotten son: "Gave my life and love to Jesus / He's been so good to me I can't stay anymore." And those are the first lyrics on the record! At first, I didn't know what to make of this, but there is a kind of fearlessness involved in making this the opening salvo on an indie record. She sings it in her highest register, cracking way up there, a bit like Chilton does when he gets high up. It's a pop song, and a fabulous one, but what I like so much about the album as a whole is its shifty zig-zags. The fucking thing is all over the place. The next 'un, "Emotional Levy," has this incredible percussive thingy going on in it. It begins with a dirgy P.I.L. (not in an overly trendy way) bassline, and the only guitar is a percussive chicken scratch overlaid with handclaps. Even with all of this it still sounds like Motown (albeit on a day when H-D-H were ALL really bummed about something). Then the song ends all a cappella too!

Which brings up another thing. The arrangements, which are certainly the most sophisticated in pop music today, have the surefootedness of the best produce-o nerds, but beyond that, the songs twist and writhe all unexpectedly. But they're not ostentatious about it. There is a new use of dissonance throughout this record that actually works to the advantage of the song. The songs sound right (all-important) but they're NOT right. They don't have AVANT GARDE tattooed on their foreheads or anything. All of these techniques are just kind of absorbed into the overall palette. They're songs, not frickin' math or undanceable dance music. Shit!

Back to "Emotional Levy," the a cappella goes out of tune with the underlying bassline at the end, and it sounds like the note is being bent, which creates a nice tension, and eliminates potential accusations of retro posturing. Phew. It feels good to listen to melodic music that isn't painfully dedicated to the rank backwardness of the world right now.

But then again, "Mission Bells," the single off the album, does have more than a passing resemblance to Love and the Left Banke...But it's a single ya know?

As the album progresses, it gets even weirder. There is a mini-suite of songs, but they couldn't have less to do with one another. "The Train #1" is a deft and repititious melding of Spector and spikes. There's a big fake kettle drum sound and a very Fire Engines-esque guitar line that almost hurts in context of this faux orchestra. But "The Train #2" sounds like the Dils or the Circle Jerks, with a lot of screaming and a Smiths quote. It's paranoid and fuckin' fast. Maybe they'll be on the next Warped Tour. Nah.

The final song, "Melody Not Malaise" (a statement of fucking purpose if I've ever heard one) is, as has become routine on an Aislers album, a show-stopping epic ballad. Again, dissonance is used creatively, the chords of the song moving from major to minor and back again regardless of the melody, finally swooping into a Go Go's like chorus that can only be described as triumphant considering the various hoops and swings the song drags you through.

What is so consistently fantastic about the Aislers Set is the way in which such retro materials aren't regurgitated with better production and better jeans. The Aislers, as all great "indie" bands before them, have taken the essentials of the rock tradition and recast them as something new (Sonic Youth and "She's As Beautiful As a Foot" for ex.), something you needed that you never knew you needed before. With this album, the Aislers have consolidated their strengths and made, for the first time, an album that totally transcends the cult of indie pop, an album that will last. You can't say that about the other thousands of albums rammed up the poopchute of what used to be the most innovative music in the country. It's proof that there's a bit of life in the old dog yet.

(background tile photo by Jasmine J. Jopling / photo of Amy Linton from the cover of Chickfactor #13 / both acquired through Google image search, used without permission, hope it's OK)