American Analog Set: Set Free
I keep getting this band’s name mixed up with that of The Monochrome Set, whom I’ve never heard but whose name seems a good fit for this music. American Analog Set’s approach is in some ways the opposite of Calexico’s (reviewed last week): instead of variety and eclecticism they have chosen to take a very limited set of tools and perfect them: softly strummed low guitar strings, bass, light drums, keyboard or vibes unobtrusively filling out the sound, and whispery (but still precise) vocals, all beautifully produced with great space and clarity. The result is a very warm, full, simple sound, and an emotional tone somewhere between subdued and depressed, maybe hearkening back to the Velvet Underground’s self-titled mostly acoustic album. There are almost no “lead” instrumental passages. I suppose you could call it minimalist. The textures and volume are so consistent throughout that the album can almost become ambient music that you can either listen closely to or leave in the background.
The very appealing but very limited palette puts a pretty heavy burden on the songs, and for the most part they carry it well musically—but not lyrically. If every song were as irresistible as the opener, “Born on the Cusp,” the lyrics wouldn’t matter that much. But most of them aren’t quite that engaging, and they need lyrics that are as sharp and focused as the music: a haiku-like simplicity, or something like those famous imagistic poems of William Carlos Williams like “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Too many of these lyrics are merely vague without suggesting profundity, dull, or even annoying, like those of the disappointing “Cool Kids Keep,” which has one of the catchier tunes on the album but whose lyrics are uninteresting variations on an uninteresting theme. Only a few of the songs, like the nearly perfect “Jr,” have lyrics that rise to the level of the music. Occasional crudities don’t help. I’ve taken to skipping the last song, “F*** This, I’m Leaving,” which is pretty but has a lyric which, taken with the title, seem to be an obnoxious sexual ultimatum.
In spite of the weak lyrics, though, it remains enjoyable after repeated hearings, and so deserves: