For a few years now, I've been participating in a thread on rateyourmusic.com called the "Go Review that Album Game." In this game, one person posts a review on the thread, then the next person looks at his/her predecessor's music collection and picks any album for that person to review. I like this system because it forces me to analyze albums I otherwise might ignore and not limit myself to what I know really well.
This review is a product of that game. I previously said that my goal was to expand from my familiar zone of writing reviews but that doesn't mean I'll stop writing them. I try to consistently type up a review once a month. Here's one of an album you probably haven't heard of!
And by the way, here is a list of my reviews through that game. Some of them suck but I'd rather write more reviews than go back and edit them. Plus, it's nice to see that I'm a better writer now that before.
There's something so wonderful about a band that can't pinned down but aren't trying to be particularly groundbreaking. Grand Archives come out of Seattle's indie scene and are led by Mat Brooke, former lead guitarist for Band of Horses. But this quintet’s general style sounds more like seventies soft rock a la America than anything else. Of course, the main difference between GA and the lush sound of England’s favorite Crosby, Stills, and Nash wannabe is in the lyrics. The verse here is essentially the anti-cliché. Originality (some might say opacity) hardly begins to describe the words penned by Mr. Brooke.
“Torn Foam Blue Couch” begins this self-titled album with “Hold on, the further waves are high, sleepless every night, lie down shading your eyes from everyone.” This is a rather odd beginning, but what really makes it out of the ordinary is the delivery. The lyrics and melody don’t mesh like one might expect them to. Lyrically, the album is one long, reflective, line after another. Yet each word is sung as part of the greater melody, with no inflection or emotion. Nearly all the vocals are doubled and drenched with reverb making this occasionally heart-wrenching poetry seem nonchalant, floating dreamily above the acoustic guitars and piano.
Another prime example of the paradoxical lyric/music relationship is in the third to last track, “Louis Riel.” The song seems to be about the narrator’s disdain for the title character and has a harmonized chorus of “Hung by a rope where the railroad will surely come by,” sung after a child-like refrain of “ba da dum, ba da dum, ba da da da dum.” The song could be a musical cousin of “Teach Your Children” or “Ventura Highway,” two tunes we might not associate with a hangman’s noose.
I saw Grand Archives play at the Sasquatch Festival in 2008. I was pleasantly surprised, eventually purchasing their first full-length release. Of course, hearing the group live, I wasn’t listening carefully to the words, but I knew I liked their sound. The songs were simple but quite catchy and all contained a certain charm. Also, the group could seamlessly switch from tender acoustic arrangements to full-on rockers without losing any clarity or allure. I hadn’t even heard of the group before seeing them live, so I was pleased to have discovered something worthwhile.
After really getting to know Grand Archives, I’m still a fan. The songs are cleverly written, and subtlety is the name of the game. As mentioned earlier, the vocals might appear to lack personality but that’s just part of the act. To quote the final song, “Orange Juice,” “You can’t conquer a world that’s always been good to you, but let’s go out and try anyway.” This confusing yet somehow understandable bit of advice is a perfect ending to this quirky debut.