American Analog Set: The Golden Band
(plus The Only Living Boy Around/It's All About Us 7")

Released:

July 1999

Reviewed:

2/7/00

Label:

Emperor Jones

Grade:

A- (7": A)

Synopsis: A slightly uneven but occasionally amazing album -- overall, another success for the Amazing Kenny and his magical crew

I will start this review page with a provocative statement: The American Analog Set is not only one of the best bands out there today, but is also one of the most misunderstood and maligned.

Indie is usually nice to its own, and I find truly unkind criticism to be very rare -- usually, at worst, people invoke their escape clause with phrases like "It's not my cup of tea" or "I didn't really get into it". But Amanset has been on the receiving end of some of the more vicious attacks I've seen in the indie review circuit. One reviewer referred to them as "tendentious twaddle", another says "the songs sound all the same and the band has nothing too original to offer", a third calls them "limp [and] overhyped". From what I can tell, AmAnSet really lucked out early on -- they got a record deal without having to sweat in the salt mines for a million years, and they got a lot of really good press. It wouldn't surprise me if a lot of people in the Texas scene may have come to resent their success, and had an axe to grind against them. (What a bizarre choice of band to have a vendetta against, though -- they're some of the nicest folks in the business. Why not hate the High Llamas instead? I heard they heckled Low...)

Of course, there are also a lot of people who just aren't smart enough to really listen to Amanset. You can't really do much about the "stupid factor", though. (This review of an unrelated album, in Option magazine, features the frighteningly moronic comment, "The trouble with slow-core bands like Low or Slowdive is that they're all mood and no movement." Bleah...)

As for the misunderstood part...well, first of all, like almost every other band I've seen compared to Stereolab, they sound nothing like Stereolab, except on the most superficial level. Sure, they use a Farfisa, and are good, but that's about it. Maybe "The Following Morning" sounds like the last track on Mars Audiac Quintet, or something like that.

Furthermore, just as with Low, the drug references also get really old (particularly inasmuch as at least one member of Amanset is straightedge). (Here's a decent review of The Golden Band, by the way, and here's another one.) I'm tired of seeing words like "drone" or "repetitive" or "narcotic" attached to them -- it's not really what they're about, at least to these ears.

What are they about?

At their best: being really beautiful, I'd say.

Like a lot of good music, Amanset albums tend to take a while to sink in. I've been initially disappointed by every album I've gotten by them (with the exception of their Late One Sunday EP...but that EP is now my least favorite of all of their CDs). When I first got From Our Living Room to Yours, I was expecting something more along the lines of Low, and wasn't really hooked at first. But within a few days I was listening to it almost nonstop. I then got their first album, The Fun of Watching Fireworks, and was disappointed that it didn't have the crystalline, melancholy air of Living Room. But what it did have, instead, was a joy and sweetness that proved, in the end, just as compelling.

The Golden Band didn't entirely draw me in at first, and after repeated listenings I'm still going to have to place it third behind their first two (Fireworks gets an A, Living Room an A+ as one of the ten or twenty best albums of the 1990s). Having first bought The Golden Band on vinyl (unlike the other Amanset albums, which I only have on CD) may slant my perspective considerably. (It's not an insignificant consideration -- I find Low's Secret Name about 20 times better on CD than LP, whereas Transona Five's Duffel Bag is far better on vinyl.)

So...

Whereas Fireworks was exuberant, and Living Room meditative and at times almost bleak, some of The Golden Band is almost...dare I say it...funky? That's not really the word I want, but there's something in, say, "A Schoolboy's Charm" that grooves in a completely different way than anything I'd heard from them before. It's good in its own right, though it does leave me missing the sheer refined beauty of their older albums -- though when I listen to The Golden Band, I find that I say to myself, "I'm really glad I'm listening to this album." Which counts for something.

I could go on and on about the individual tracks, but for the most part, I'd rather not. I have mixed feelings about the "New Drifters" set, I really like "I Must Soon Quit the Scene", and "Weather Report" is a lot closer to the old Amanset than most of the album. What I would like to talk about, though, are the two things that make the album stand out for me:

  • The vibraphone. If there was any single instrument that Amanset could've added to broaden their sound, this is it. It is the absolute perfect complement to their music, and was a brilliant choice. I'm an admitted vibes junkie, but no one should be able to resist their charms on this album! And that leads us to:
  • The title track of the album, which is possibly the greatest single song that came out in 1999. It is so beautiful it's almost ridiculous. To describe it (just vibes, a bass drum, and the sound of someone breathing, I think) makes it sound trivial, but it's five minutes of the most gorgeous musicmaking I'd heard in a while. Without this track, I might give the album a B+ or even a B, but with it...

As for the 7", it's the best Amanset 7-inch yet. The alternate version of "It's All About Us" uses vibes (yes!) to great effect, and "The Only Living Boy Around" is a novel, witty little number that works very well. It's definitely much more memorable on the whole than their first two 7-inches, neither of which I found particularly memorable in comparison with their respective albums (though I need to give them another chance, I suspect). Besides, who can refuse blue vinyl?