FEATURE: “Two-Speed Cycle”: Revisiting The American Analog Set’s ‘Know By Heart’
by Chad Jewett
Know By Heart, The American Analog Set’s excellent 2001 album and the subject of a wonderful reissue from Barsuk Records, builds the sort of world you might be content to live in. All dulcet tones, warming lights, and gauzy, plush surfaces, the record is resolutely amiable, worn-in. Perhaps, more accurately, you might live in it already. Even if you’ve never heard it before its amber-tinted snapshots seem to have been cycling for years, washing-out like polaroids beneath your car’s back windshield. Indeed, Know By Heart is a canny title for the record – it evokes the way The American Analog Set’s aesthetic is rooted in familiarity and the recognizable textures and repetitions of every day life. In some ways, Know By Heart is music for use (another fact that connects it to minimalist art music), since it’s dusted indie pop loops like daily drives, chores, and routines. It’s the kind of album where you imagine the grooves have already been carved in a bit deeper, like the wood floor beneath a rocking chair. It is a lightly eroded forty minutes, finely grained yet dog-eared.
Poised between the soft sculptures of The Golden Band and the more forward-oriented, pop-shaped advances of Promise of Love and especially Set Free, Know By Heart now sounds like a moment that most bands have, where they’re initial ideas about their own art suddenly expand without ever quite changing shape. An analog might be Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things, or Death Cab For Cutie’s Photo Album. These are records where whatever flint the artists are cracking away at suddenly produces one giant spark. Andrew Kenny’s voice, which has always been (and perhaps always will be), a weary, dreamy instrument, find’s new direction on Know By Heart. Take album opener “Punk As Fuck,” a lovely, cotton-y diorama of brushed drums, electric piano, and circling acoustic guitar over which Kenny stretches his melody in elliptical ribbons: “Yooooouuuur on my side / Weeeeeee’re always right.” If Kenny was invested in Yo La Tengo-style conversations on The Golden Band, then songs like “Punk As Fuck” found him discovering a more insightful grasp on contrast and counterpoise. If The American Analog Set’s aesthetic imprint is that of a gently circling cul-de-sac, then Kenny smartly allows his melodies to rope through the center, a salient line of color through a landscape of perfect geometry.
Elsewhere, like on the rotating “The Only One,” Andrew Kenny’s voice becomes an extension of the song’s looping drums. Yet Know By Heart feels special for the way Kenny is able to turn the band’s cerebral, nocturnal cubism into pop music. That a record can be both defined by texture and atmosphere while remaining wholly tuneful, minimalist and cerebral yet sporting the instinctive hooks of “The Postman” and “The Kindness of Strangers”, is faintly revelatory, and a sign of just how artful the band’s balance of melody and modernism had become by the middle of their career. Know By Heart has a way of making you feel spoiled — its pleasures are that of a filling meal of which there’s enough to take home for tomorrow. The central melody of “Aaron and Maria” could double as an Otis Redding horn chart, a CCR riff, a sentimental hit from a late 90s summer. Yet the song feels no bigger or grander than your high school car or whichever house you lived in at 20 or wherever you spent the best night of your favorite June. While there’s an obvious barb in a line like “So leave me to die in the comfort of my own home” (from “Punk As Fuck”), recall how Kenny repeats “of my own home.” The album’s circles are half-acre in size, curled around and around front and back yards.
“We’re Computerizing And We Just Don’t Need You Anymore” swells in its middle like a waxing memory, rumpled sheets of electric organ and airy harmonies lifting then ebbing gorgeously with the quality of fading light. “Choir Vandals” (which would famously go on to be covered by Ben Gibbard for a split with Kenny) is a slow-phase bit of water-color art-folk, yet its melody is unshakable, a whisper bent to the shape of the song’s pared-down guitar: “Two-speed cycle / Streamered handles.” And really, you’re not going to get a better metaphor for the album’s cyclical cul-de-sac movements, its everyday splendor, than the image of a bicycle with streamers lofting from its handlebars. That is the album’s charm – its ability to turn the repetition of normal life into a fireworks display, even if each burst is replaced by a dulcet tone.
The reissue resembles that of Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism, also handled by Barsuk. Like the Death Cab LP, Know By Heart is given a 180 gram cut and a beautifully simple packaging, along with a digital download of demoes recorded in the run-up to the album proper. Funnily enough, even the demoes are oddly consonant with the scratch tracks included with Transatlanticism – both sets are characterized by pared down versions that nevertheless offer fascinating counter-histories in their use of electronic and programmed drums, in their vaguely differing melodies (“The Postman” for instance, is perhaps a tad sweeter in demo form), in their slightly varied shapes. Happily, the demoes serve to form more of a shadow-version of Know By Heart than an instruction manual, an array of different choices rather than the more dully academic demoes we’re more used to from these sorts of reissues – the stuff that serves only to amplify the greatness of official versions, rather than highlight the band’s subtle, evolving choices.
Yet if there’s a useful coincidence in the Know By Heart reissue arriving with an outline similar to that of Transatlanticism, then there’s also an intriguing rhyme in revisiting this album in the wake of American Football’s similarly expansive reissue of their sole LP (via Polyvinyl Records – the other unshakably lovable indie label). Like American Football, Know By Heart is autumnal and geometric and earthy. Both are influenced by the phasing, major key minimalism of Reich and Glass, both are arranged with the youthful care of a kid building miniature forts from twigs and branches. Consider the front-lawn poetics of Mike Kinsella then think of Andrew Kenny’s bicycle, caught in circling, wind-borne motion. The narratives of American Football tend to be direct where the stories of American Analog Set are frequently elliptical: Kinsella would cite “the autumn night when we realized we were falling out of love”; Kenny stops at “It’s the circuit that gets worse yet”. Yet you get the sense that both are talking about the passing of time and the ways in which its loops both disintegrate yet retain their shape. There is also the shared spaciousness and chronology of middle-America (Texas for AmAnSet, Illinois for American Football), the whirring span of the plains that perhaps had no small effect on both bands’ taste for patient shifting and slow-arriving epiphany. The albums form a fascinating pair, inverted versions of the same idea about how melodies and textures and shapes can pivot and wax and thus resemble the time-lapse photography of daily life.
To call American Analog Set emo would be to instigate any number of gatekeepers. Yet the band’s brand of translucent, pointillist, and above all else, romanticist mood music is also wholly missing from our contemporary definitions of indie rock. If the bronzed wheat-straw houses of Mike Kinsella are emo’s new center, then perhaps that’s a more helpful orbit in which to trace Andrew Kenny’s similarly sepia slices of life. Besides of course letting it take up its own space — which it of course does. But there’s certainly more of AmAnSet to be found in the gentle post-hardcore of last generation’s punk Midwest than in the nebulous distance of 2010s indie. Arcade Fire is earnest the way Bono is earnest; their sincerity is outsized and abstract. The Suburbs was satisfied to mostly deal in archetypes. Britt Daniel and Annie Clark are very much in earnest, but Spoon and St Vincent will always be art school projects, albeit frequently revelatory, breathtaking ones (though it’s worth noting Spoon and The American Analog Set’s shared taste for addition through subtraction). Real Estate and Parquet Courts are studiously removed — the former in chilly upper-middle-class placidness that often feels as though it can’t be bothered, the latter in a glib fog of cool. Wye Oak are similarly homespun, but where AmAnSet digs into the sound of settling, Wye Oak are more interested in unsettling. Really, only upperclassmen like Yo La Tengo (whose sonic shape is close to AmAnSet) and Superchunk share the band’s taste for recognizable worlds, auras, and ways of seeing. Not only could you picture Mac McCaughan make a hook out of a phrase like “I’m the postman”, you could imagine him singing it more of less the same way, in a scuffed, keening sing-song. The occasion for Barsuk’s reissue of Transatlanticism was an anniversary. For Know By Heart, it may be an antidote.
And in fact, there are traces of the reedy, needle-and-thread aesthetic of The American Analog Set in a younger generation of independent music that has all but disavowed any convenient property lines between emo, indie, folk, and pop. Take Waxahatchee, the most recent project of P.S. Eliot co-founder Katie Crutchfield, a band built from similar parts – acoustic guitars, sing-song melodies, life-sized narratives – and similarly revelatory in casual, poignant ways. Or take Football, etc., hailing from AmAnSet’s Texas, who at their most quiet and gentle (check out “Extra Point” from Audible) glimmer and unspool like Know By Heart. When emo archeologists Joie de Vivre embrace quiet, mood, and minimalism, they evoke a similar sense of finely-wrought spaciousness to be found on songs like “Slow Company.” In reality, there isn’t that much difference between the wiry cursive of Cap’n Jazz and the flaxen circularity of The American Analog Set other than velocity. Listening to one of the band’s finest achievements, thirteen years later, you can’t help but hope you hear more of it – more music shaped to the orbit of your day.