I WON'T DRIVE FAR...
Despite hailing from San Francisco, there has always been a strangely British quality to the records made by The Aisler's Set. Maybe it's their influences, which appear to include Sarah records and Girls At Our Best, or maybe it's simply that they sound as though they come from Glasgow, and that they wouldn't be wildly out of step with bands such as Camera Obscura or Adventures in Stereo.
Singer/guitarist/producer Amy Linton, formerly of Henry's Dress and (briefly) Go Sailor, began recording songs under the name The Aisler's Set in 1997, in her garage, before being joined by Wyatt Cusick (guitar/vocals), Alicia VandenHevvel (bass), Jen Cohen (organ) and Yoshi Nakamoto (drums), all of whom play in other Bay Area bands. "The way I used to do things was that everything would be worked out before anyone else heard it, and that would be easier for me, as I had an idea of how I wanted it to sound. But as it turned out, they're four completely competent musicians and capable of making everything better", Linton told Louisa Thomson of "Purr".
Linton's relaxed, low key approach to making music can be seen as stemming from the fact that she has been in and out of bands since she was eleven. "Tellingly, she cites The Smiths and The Dead Kennedys as the bands that were most important to her, growing up in the middle of nowhere," reported Louisa Thomson, "Now, San Francisco provides most of the inspiration for her songs." If Linton's early life provided her with a sense of isolation that is eloquently conveyed on songs such as "Emotional Levy", it is fair to suggest that her life in San Francisco has provided the warmth that makes such isolation and melancholy sweet and moving, musically.
"Mary's Song", from the debut album, "Terrible Things Happen", with its blurred and echoing vocals and subtle, understated chords conveys this sweet, aching melancholy to great effect, revealing that less is so often more. It's a wistful song of heartbreak and sadness, with a warmth that is provided by the bar room camaraderie, and a charm that is almost part Velvet Underground, part Jesus and Mary Chain, but most of all, totally itself.
Much like Belle and Sebastian's "Tigermilk", "Terrible Things Happen" was a well-accomplished debut that displayed quality songwriting set against minimal-yet-perfect production. Punky indie pop anthems, like "Friend Of The Heroes" sit happily alongside the cheerful thrashy garage pop of "Holiday Gone Well" and "Falling Buildings", whilst "London Madrid" and "Why Baby" show a fondness for understated simplicity and sixties folk tinged pop coupled with Sarah records that would lead them to support Belle and Sebastian on their debut U.S. tour two years later.
By 2000's "The Last Match", the band were gaining a small yet significant, not to mention loyal following internationally. The album made it into Spin.com's top twenty albums of the year, led to radio airplay and a session fro John Peel, as well as enthusiastic reviews in NME, Mojo, The Times and The Guardian, and it's easy to see why. Opening track, "The Way To Market Station" comes across like The Darling Buds with sixties girl group harmonies, whereas tracks such as "Hit The Snow", "Chicago New York" and "Lonely Side of Town" (the latter showcasing Wyatt Cusick's almost Stuart Murdoch-esque vocals) could all have been singles, had the band not plumped instead for "The Red Door", a thrashy but catchy, feedback drenched slice of punk pop. Whilst The Aisler's Set's use to harmonies is pure Sixties California, it's on "The Last Match" that the band display most clearly what is an admittedly small debt to Phil Spector, in this case, probably the Phil Spector Christmas album, as evidenced on "Hit The Snow". Many reviewers have compared The Aisler's Set favourably to Phil Spector's wall of sound, but the comparison meets terse reaction from Linton, who acknowledges the influence, but who admitted to Louisa Thomson that she "doesn't seem to hear it as much as other people do."
Certainly by 2003's "How I Learnt to Write Backwards", the Spector influence is negligible at best. Opening track "Catherine Says" mixes sixties style harmonies with handclaps, glockenspiel and light fuzz guitar to make for glistening upbeat catchy pop that contrasts strongly with the sparse, brooding "Emotional Levy", a soundtrack of tension to the beat of a ticking clock, which, with it's minimal guitar and drums, displays Linton's quietly sweet voice to great effect. The song ascends, in its climax, into an almost gospel infused call and response of glorious despair and heightened emotion that is strangely moving.
Whilst the thrashy, fast punk pop of "Languor in the Balcony" is reminiscent of "The Last March", "Mission Bells" hints towards almost Marine Research or Stereolab territory, whilst "Sara's Song" has a brooding 4AD/Twin Peaks feel to it, and "Attraction Action Reaction" mixes angular post punk riffs with sixties harmonies and the jangle of tambourines, allowing the vocals to soar. "Unfinished Paintings" recalls the gorgeous wistful melancholy of "Mary's Song", and displays the band at its most pared down: just Linton and her guitar, singing a lullaby to a lost love, of sadness, of things left unfinished, with a cool quiet dignity that is her preserve alone. By contrast, "Melody Not Malaise" shares a peculiarly jazz like spiralling with "The Train #1" as well as some gorgeously soaring vocals and an eerie restlessness, suggesting the shape of things to come perhaps.
Whilst "How I Learned To Write Backwards" is, at face value, the least accessible, or least pop, of The Aisler's Set's three albums, it builds on the quiet subtleties of the earlier works, and displays a flair for experimentation with a number of different styles that usually comes off, and which should be admired.
As to what the future holds for the band, they are currently gigging around San Francisco and the U.S. and it is assumed that a new album will appear at a later, as yet unspecified date. The won't-be-hurried-won't-be-rushed approach that Linton and her bandmates have taken so far has served them well, so playing the waiting game for a while longer should be all worthwhile in the end.
Yahoo! Music Canada.
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN BY CAZZ BLASE.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2008.