Album: Canopy Glow
In Brief: Fantastically imaginative, intricate, and surprisingly accessible. Anathallo may have given their first album a run for its money.
Anathallo is a dorky indie rock band. The members of the band would probably be among the first to tell you this, or at least they weren’t ashamed to admit to this aspect of their personality when I saw them perform live at a club in Silverlake, a community within Los Angeles known for being a hipster magnet. Fortunately, whether the crowd on that particular evening was actually full of hipsters or just curious twenty-somethings looking for a new twist on self-expression through rock music (or, more likely, combination of both, since the two aren’t mutually exclusive), Anathallo managed to win this crowd over. You see, they’re not dorks in the “we like math and science and lack basic social skills” sense. It’s more that they’re a collective of English lit geeks, and marching band geeks, and maybe glee club geeks too. OK, perhaps math plays a role, due to their flair for complicated polyrhythmic structures that can change on a dime within a song. But I would say that their work is more abstractly expressive than self-consciously awkward. So while they might be proud to admit their dork status, it doesn’t come across as an apology for any sort of limitation… unless you consider a lack of interest in making standard rock music to be a limitation.
When I reviewed Anathallo’s first full-length album, 2006’s Floating World, I referred to them as “Sufjan Stevens with a major Japanese fetish”, due to the way the horns and bells and handclaps and tricky time signatures collided with little bits of Japanese poetry and even a four-song suite based on a Japanese folk tale. That was a tricky album, one which steadily grew on me and became one of my all-time favorite discs, but which had a tendency to baffle most listeners due to interesting little bits within their rapidly morphing songs, that sometimes stood out more than the full songs did. As much as I love that album, it’s a rather fragmented concoction of musical ideas (though not as intentionally ADD as something The Fiery Furnaces would put out, but then, few bands are that notoriously hyperactive). The band apparently realized this and decided to scale back their more labyrinthine tendencies for their follow-up album, Canopy Glow. The sound is still unmistakably Anathallo, but the track listing is surprisingly more concise without this collection of ten songs skimping on content or meaning or delectable instrumental performances in any way. I can’t say yet that I like it more than their first album, since it’s had less time to settle in, but I can say with certainty that it’s equally worthy of the five-star rating that I finally realized I had robbed the band of when I reviewed Floating World. It’ll probably be the less daunting of the two for new listeners, and the fact that they accomplished this without dumbing anything down demonstrates commendable skill on their part.
So what’s Canopy Glow all about, anyway? On first glance, it appears to be about how Clay Aiken has fallen on hard times. But that’s just the cover photo. On second glance, the album appears to deal with death – not so much the morbidity of realizing that all human life is finite, but more the process by which one comes to realize that one is aging, that muscles and memory are beginning to fail, and that there’s a serene beauty to be found in the acceptance of this natural process. That’s only the vaguest hint of a meeting that I can glean from their highly abstract poetry, of course – but I like that their verbal musings and meanderings can conjure up a lot of images and ideas that will strike different listeners in a potential myriad of different ways. They’re not so obtuse as to be impenetrable, but their writing definitely comes across as if a poem was written first and then a musical suite was built around it. This isn’t a bad thing, but it might annoy those of you who think this sort of thing is best left to the hipster crowd. Personally, I get tired of straightforward lyrics where everything had to rhyme nicely and neatly, and make sense on the first pass. Try reading the lyrics to most pop hits out loud as if they were poetry – it just sounds stunted. It almost needs the music to cover up the fact that it’s not exactly thought-provoking stuff.
There’s a downside to this lyrical approach, though. Despite the attempt to streamline the creative process and write more distinctive songs that stick to a melodic hook or lyrical refrain in more memorable ways, the myriad of people singing and playing different instruments and banging on things can sometimes cause the words to get buried. A year from now, I probably still won’t be able to sing along to some of my favorite tracks on this record, despite having a lyric sheet readily available. Anathallo faces a small dilemma in that sense – their music is incredibly memorable, but it’s a lot for the brain to process, so even guys like me whose minds are virtual song databases can have trouble keeping up. That doesn’t diminish my love for Canopy Glow – it just indicates that there’s a bit of a learning curve, and I don’t claim to be totally up to speed yet. There are sparser, more intimate songs here and there which help to break up the melodic cacophony, so please don’t get the impression that it’s all one big, impenetrable mess. If you can find beauty in an exotic painting without knowing who created it or what their inspiration was, and if you can find meaning in a foreign film with the subtitles turned off, then you’ll probably find a lot to love in Anathallo’s world, despite not fully understanding what’s going on.
1. Noni’s Field
Still, I don’t know what goes on
Will my thoughts burn in unseen patterns?
Form a dim glow in your mind?
Long after you remember who it was that I looked like?
There’s no better way to start off an album than with an upbeat, cheery-sounding little ditty about death! That’s what Anathallo seems to think, anyway, and I’m not about to tell them any different. As this tune gets rolling with an egg shaker counting off the beat and lead singer Matt Joynt begins to reminisce about his grandfather’s funeral with softly cooing background vocals, the increasing intensity of pounding drums, and Erica Froman‘s autoharp adding a tapestry of rich sounds behind him, it’s easy to see how the band approaches this subject with wonder rather than dread. They even throw in some inspired violin playing near the end, which makes the song feel like something Andrew Bird might have come up with (if only he were seven people instead of one – OK, well maybe just three people, since Bird can do the work of two or three people all at once, but this isn’t an Andrew Bird album and that’s beside the point). The song muses on how we will perceive our eventual passing and what will be remembered of us when we are left behind, and there’s no morbid fascination to it, nor do the massive chorus sung in unison or the sweet “oh-oh”s that fill in the gaps between stanzas of lyrics make it feel like a creepy, cartoonish mockery. It’s simply a different viewpoint that will be explored in bits and pieces throughout the album – death as a portal, a waypoint on a journey, rather than a final proclamation of doom.
It was a mystery to me when you crawled out from underneath the sidewalk overhang
Cement buckled upward, and the rain came dripping through the crack…
Here’s a case where it might be bad to judge a song by its title – you’re likely to expect this one to be about a postmodern writer, or about a style of European disco music, depending on which Wikipedia article you land on first. It’s certainly upbeat, but I wouldn’t classify it as danceable, so that likely rules out the second option, but knowing nothing about the writer, I can barely hazard a guess as to what these bizarre lyrics are getting at. The song certainly stays in the brain, though, with its repeated mantra of “When you get up, when you wake up, put your hands up, pick yourself up”, cheerily sung by Erica and a few of the guys, while Matt’s verses are overlaid on top of this refrain, making the song feel almost alarmingly cluttered at first as the bright-eyed chorus competes with bizarre musings about people crawling out of cracks in the sidewalk and whatnot. The song has its own odd charm, which becomes more apparent on repeated listens as the drums and other percussion sounds clatter about and you get swept up in its punchy 6/8 rhythm, with the catchiest part (aside from the repetitive refrain) being a cute little breakdown of vocals and horns in the song’s bridge, which I can never seem to follow exactly due to it being sometimes on the beat and sometimes slightly behind it. It’s a complicated song that somehow manages to be compact and simple in terms of its length and its ability to stay stuck in the listener’s mind. Definitely an early favorite of mine, thanks to the sneak peek I got when I saw the band live this summer.
3. Northern Lights
Watching shielded in the silence
Shielded in the knowledge that has no use for language
Standing on the lawn until you wish to be crushed in its collisions…
This song is so quiet at first that it seems to be barely there, gently creeping in like a morning fog, with only the faint sounds of wooden blocks being rubbed together and the gentle tendrils of an electric guitar feelings its way through the dark expanse. Much like the magnetic phenomenon that the song is named after, it has a way of filling a dark, icy canvas with radiant color, which is evident when the song switches gears after the mellow first half almost completely loses its bearings and wanders off into rhythmically indistinct nothingness – there’s a moment where a few bells are struck and Erica’s voice resounds with a gentle “da da da”, which leads into a sweeping climax, celebrating an indescribable moment of arctic beauty that the exultant, layered chorus of voices can only give vague hints at. It’s lovely enough to make me wish the mesmerizing show would last a little longer, but it gradually fades away into bleak silence as a final, nearly-whispered verse closes the song.
4. The River
Death’s panic came, a calmness stayed
You couldn’t do much
Just watch the water chip away at the bank eroding
Cut and crumbling through the spate…
Anathallo certainly has a thing for composing poetic piano ballads in 7/8 time. “Dokkoise House” was my undisputed favorite on Floating World, and this tune, though comparatively more robust and up-tempo than that delicate little Japanese flower, certainly gives it a run for its money, with the piano solidly establishing a rhythm that it seems to purposefully slip off of in order to keep the count of 7 going. The album gets its title from this strange little fable about a woman caught in the raging current of a mighty river, one who has come to accept her fate and who simply looks up at the “canopy glow” above her, admiring the leaves and branches and the way that the sunlight plays against them, and apparently realizing that if this is the end, maybe it ain’t such a bad way to go. Apparently this really happened to Erica’s mother, but she survived, so they exaggerated her experience for poetic effect… but it’s one heck of a gorgeous effect. The keyboard sounds trickle down like snowflakes, the strings caress the ear like red and orange leaves tossed around by the wind, and the drums swell up like the river’s swirling currents, only to subside at just the right moment to bring peace where there was previously panic. There’s much competition, but I think I’m ready to declare “The River” as my favorite track on Canopy Glow.
You were baptized by a dollop from a Cool Whip bowl (finger flung)
Sulfur water, holy water from the drinking fountain of the high school cafeteria…
If you think Anathallo has made some pretty strange music thus far, then I should warn you that the album’s midsection is where things get truly bizarre. Since the 7/8 thing worked out for them so well, they stick with it here, reverting to more rock-based instrumentation (comparatively speaking) and letting a softspoken electric guitar and some clattering drums lead the way, before the song morphs into a big walking Frankenstein made up of bells and piano and various vocal sounds – think Sufjan Stevens’ “Dear Mr. Supercomputer”, with that same “trying to imitate the meticulous counting of a computer, but based on the understanding we had of computers when they were full of vacuum tubes rather than microchips” sort of feel, but lighter on the woodwinds and heavier on the brass. Now superimpose that on top of lyrics that describe a baptism or communion or some sort of religious rite taking place in a school cafeteria, with the day-old food items on hand serving as the holy sacraments. I hate to keep bringing up the Fiery Furnaces when Anathallo sounds nothing like them, but there’s a level of alliterative nonsense, seemingly written just for the pure delight of the way the words roll of the tongue, that is not unlike some of the Furnaces’ more inspired bits of lunacy.
6. Sleeping Torpor
We slipped into the snow boots
Stood behind the coats hanging in the closet racks
The hangers jangled, did he hear the metal clattering?
And had I give us away? I’d given us away…
This is perhaps the album’s eeriest song, and certainly its longest, opening with tense acoustic chords and turning the group’s usual vocal configuration on its head, bringing Erica’s voice to the forefront while the guys play a supporting role. She has a cute, whispering-you-a-secret sort of quality to her voice, which is strongly reminiscent of Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek – and the lyrics, which are apparently about a group of hummingbirds huddled together and trying to evade discovery by a man clearly bent on killing them, have the sort of you-never-know-what-they’ll-come-up-with-next quality that I came to expect from the Creek later in their career. The Creek didn’t have loud, blurting horns or slamming drums, though, so they would have had to come up with another way to infuse a song with as much dread as Anathallo does. I’m not sure of the meaning of this little parable, or if there’s meant to be one. It might drag on a bit too long, but it’s still a curiously satisfying piece of music.
7. All the First Pages
Isn’t everything strange?
Buildings as brick boxes to be opened, turned sideways and cracked
Except the what that is inside is much too fluid, too fast…
This might be the one track where Anathallo gets a bit too surreal for me to be fully on board. The premise of the song seems to be that it’s about an astronaut with a missing finger, and given that it’s his ring finger, it could just be metaphorical, about a marriage gone south or something, but either way, I’ve never been big on references to severed body parts. The vocals get so dense here that it’s hard to follow everything being said either way. This song, like “Cafetorium”, has a machine-like quality, moving along at a quick speed, employing the piano, cello, and lots of rolling drums to create drama, but unlike “Cafetorium”, you won’t lose track of the rhythm, which they stick to meticulously as it tick-tick-ticks away the seconds. I suppose it’s no less morbid than a four-part suite about an angry neighbor who kills a guy’s dog (better known as the “Hanasakajijii” tracks on Floating World), but it’s definitely a challenging piece of music however you slice it.
8. John J. Audubon
Put your ear to a hummingbird’s wing
Place the hum against the ring
Listen to its still and violent motion making…
Anathallo appears to return to their old upbeat, chirpy selves with track, led off by some quirky bells that start and stop abruptly, and then bringing in another cavalcade of rhythm goodness, the “doo doo”s and “aah ahh”s and all that filling in the space between the wooden clinks and thunderous thumps of the drums. (Ever heard the theme music from the new Battlestar Galactica? The way Jeremiah Johnson plays the drums has that sort of sound, but a lot more like he’s trying to start a parade instead of a war.) This song may or may not be about a man who felt a kinship with birds, one who numerous conservation societies are now named after. It’s a bit confusing, because the lyrics appear to describe a man’s goose-hunting exploits, listening to nature simply to get clues as to his mark’s whereabouts. This being the most lyrically dense song on an album where several songs have to compete for that honor, it’s hard to say with any certainty. If you had trouble keeping up with “Italo”, this one’s gonna drive you nuts, but it’s so beautifully performed that I can’t knock it too hard for all of its giddy sonic layering. I’ll never be able to sing along in a million years, but darn if this song doesn’t whisk me away to a lush, labyrinthine abroretum in the middle of springtime whenever I listen to it.
What there once was, it won’t leave me alone
The synapses still fire and direct my thoughts
They just seem tired of hunting for homes…
It should be a no-brainer that an Anathallo song named after a percussion instrument is of course going to feature that instrument, but what’s surprising here is the more metallic tone of the bells being played – when combined with an exotic, vaguely Asian-sounding string section, this results in a pristine chamber pop composition of the highest order. It’s one of the album’s most meditative pieces, since the drums sit this one out, but I wouldn’t call it sparse by a long shot, because the clanging bells move along at a steady clip, some measuring the song’s 12/8 meter in groups of four, and some measuring in groups of three, both rhythms contributing to the whole at once, but being brought to the forefront at different times, revealing the simple mathematics that make the song feel deceptively complex. This one appears to be about memory – perhaps written to imagine what a person suffering from amnesia or Alzheimer’s or just plain having a senior moment must feel like when they can’t come up with the word they wanted to stick into a sentence, or when they enter a room and open a drawer and no longer recall which object they had originally sought out. It’s a tragic song played beautifully – Anathallo never seems to come up short in that department.
10. Tower of Babel
Whatever thing that it was, we were trying to build it up
By God, it was crushed
We came around again to knowing nothing
We came around without even our names…
For such a dazzlingly complex and yet compact and hook-laden collection of songs, it certainly seems to close on a composition that betrays their previous intentions. “Tower of Babel” is the album’s most sparse track – there’s little other than a carefully-picked electric guitar and soft horns to guide it, with Matt’s hushed voice always returning to the line “We came around again to knowing nothing”. The allusion to the Biblical tale of men getting so full of their own ability that God confused their language just to teach them a lesson makes a strong metaphor here, especially when it’s closing out an album that has so often mused about aging and death. But the song is played as if it were the first half of Floating World‘s baffling title track, without ever transitioning into the Tom Waits-inspired cacophony which eventually caused that one to win me over. It just seems to lazily circle around in the air a bit, almost die out, and then come back in again with a bit of vocal harmony from Erica and/or one of the guys, but it never really climaxes. It closes a fantastic album on a bit of a whimper – perhaps it’s an intentional “anti-finale” of sorts because death is creeping up on this old, forgetful man rather than taking him out in a blaze of glory. But I wish there were something a tad more musically satisfying here.
Don’t take my griping about the ending too seriously – Anathallo has come up with a formidable collection of songs here that proves there’s quite a bit of creativity to be mined even when they force themselves to maintain rhythmic continuity and not split their songs up into several loosely connected sections. Both skills are worthwhile, but Canopy Glow probably serves as a better introduction to their audible “performance art” than Floating World would have. For those like me who were already big fans of Floating World, it may take a few listens to appreciate the fact that scaling back the complexity a tad didn’t require the band to scale back their sense of artistry in any way. In any event, Canopy Glow is a stunning release from a band that promises to be one of indie rock’s most prolific and unpredictable artists as they continue to grow and experiment in their own lovably dorky way.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Noni’s Field $2
Northern Lights $1.50
The River $2
Sleeping Torpor $1.50
All the First Pages $1.50
John J. Audubon $1.50
Tower of Babel $1
Matt Joynt: Lead vocals, guitar, auxiliary percussion, piano
Danny Bracken: Guitar, auxiliary percussion, vocals
Erica Froman: Vocals, auxiliary percussion, autoharp
Jeremiah Johnson: Drums, percussion, vocals
Jamie Macleod: Flugelhorn, auxiliary percussion, vocals
Seth Walker: Bass, vocals
Bret Wallin: Trombone, auxiliary percussion, vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.