Volume please: Immediately one is taken with the big sound for a band that is so often hushed on record. Elmer Sharp’s popping drum bursts and cracking thumps, along with TJ Lipple’s vibes, serve to perfectly propel Ben Licciardi’s woozy songs like never before. The band in general seems to have hotfooted it in the studio, providing a kick to what could be languid drones in other hands. Licciardi has always been one of DC’s most underrated songwriters and guitarists. His quirky little intricacies hiding under the surface of subtly shifting chord changes – playing a deft mix of rhythm picking. The dust is more than blown off the tracks within though – by the pounding at the heart of “Northern Spy” it is blown away.
While he won’t turn a lot of heads as a vocalist, Licciardi’s whispered hush adds a perfect narcotic tinge to his work. It is that approach that had always seemed to doom them to smaller rooms and late night listening, but on this record they quickly cast off that illusion. The playing is so assured and the vibe so strong that the dynamics claw to the forefront and most importantly the fidelity assures that one will listen. The songs just sound rich and inviting and no detail is left buried too deep (a big nod has to go to the studio work of Chad Clark and TJ Lipple in that regard.)
Like Dumptruck covering Ultra Vivid Scene or Luna buried in Bark Psychosis, there is a perfect marriage of the late 80’s scenes in Athens and London and New York all melting together in a modern setting. When Adrian Carroll peels off his gorgeously simple leads you can reach out to the Rain Parade soaked paisley underground of that era as well. Carroll serves as something of a secret weapon, fully unleashed while scorching “They Think They Own The Place” while the others ping back and forth and providing the color for many of the stronger tracks.
There are numerous highlights and the disc seems to gain strength as it goes along, from the lush twists of “To The Quick” and “Chin Music” that kick things off, to the nervy “Final Flight” and “Port of Call” pulsing finish, with past favorite “Cut Every Corner” showcasing Carroll’s big lead with one of Ben’s more pop-centered shuffles right in the middle. Licciardi’s songwriting prowess has long deserved the proper showcase, and the beauty the group has often displayed live is not only here in abundance, but it is magnified to glorious ends.
Local boys do good: Real good. We get it. But what does it look like? What can you say? It is a study in beautiful restraint. Designed by the duo of Sonnenzimmer, and wrapped in a delightful Stumptown Printers sleeve, it is just wonderful. Nick Butcher is the male side of the equation (with Nadine Nakanishi filling the feminine slot) and has long been one of my favorite designers (and a talented sonic architect in his own right.) With the new set-up as a duo though, the work has reached epic heights.
I am often drawn to the messier parts of their creations, as both Butcher and Nakanishi bring a great deal of painting and drawing to their designs, heavily drawing from a fine art base. However, this package narrows down their acute use of white space and sense of refinement to its naked form. Not a wasted color or shape or letter in sight.
A line of centered homes giving off a slightly elongated shadow as they rise graces the cover. In less skilled hands this could achieve USA Today bar chart cheese, but Sonnenzimmer have the finest hands in the land and they give the elements just enough to define their form – yet pulling back so much so that the growth in the shadows takes on a much deeper context.
The true beauty is in the smallest touch. The collection of buildings is nine deep so that there is a natural center with which to line up the band name to the left. Knowing this is almost too easy – the pair slides it along the baseline of the fourth from the top. Just off. Just right.
The back sleeve creates a night scene by the simple reversal of color. A decadent (but needed) spot white creates the wash of headlights from the tiniest car form moving away from the lonely row of houses. It seems to be escaping, yet forever contained.
That I can even give such thought to a layout of so few elements shows how brilliant this design truly is.
The hidden text for the credits makes good use of the amount of printable space on the Stumptown casing and suits the overall feel. My only real knock is that the disc label could use something more than a wash of blue and the name hanging to the left. Just a tiny detail like the ones so prevalent elsewhere would truly be the icing on this moody little cake.
The end result is a record, and accompanying package, of deceiving simplicity and sophistication in equal parts. Inviting yet withdrawn. Complicated yet upfront.
If those words describe the ideal person to have a four-hour bar conversation with: Someone with meaning and depth. Then you have walked into the correct bar my friend. Grab a seat and stay with us until the sun comes up.
Keeping Score Are You? Music 7.5 Design 8.5
John Foster puts his money where his mouth is at his very own design firm: Bad People Good Things. He has brand spanking new book out as well with Dirty Fingernails (Rockport). Those publishers went mad and also let him author For Sale: Over 200 Innovative Solutions in Packaging Design (HOW), New Masters of Poster Design (Rockport), Maximum Page Design (HOW) and a monograph on Jeff Kleinsmith for Sub Pop Records.