Ampeater Music

Welcome to Ampeater Music. You'll notice that we've totally stripped the design. We were getting tired of the old one, and the best way to force ourselves to fix it was to dive in head first. We've unpublished all our past posts, and we're starting at the beginning, revamping each entry one at a time. They'll all be back up on the site soon enough! In the meantime, we hope you'll take the opportunity to reacquaint yourself with our back catalog. We'll also be making incremental improvements to the look and functionality of our dear old Ampeater over the coming weeks and months. Please be patient, and stay tuned for some really cool stuff. It's coming, we promise.

AEM045 Evening Hymns

AEM045 Evening Hymns
  • Location: Toronto, Ontario
  • Links: Website, Bandcamp
  • Personnel: Jonas Bonnetta

We tend to think of sad, acoustic guitar anchored music as being intimate (I don’t want to call it ‘folk’ because folk is already another kind of music. You know, like The Carter Family singing “John Hardy”). It’s a music of deeply personal songs whispered in bedrooms and as such it has the effect of feeling like a direct communication between us and a softly crooning bearded guy. It’s a kind of music that can really only exist perfectly on record, as softly crooning into a microphone in front of 600 people all craning their necks to get a glimpse of the artist’s sensible clothing doesn’t have quite the same effect. Recently, though, there seems to have emerged an interest in taking the small, cramped spaces of confessional music and cracking them wide open without sacrificing the personal content and directness that made the original style so appealing.

Phil Elverum’s songs as The Microphones and Mt. Eerie are so lyrically intimate they can sometimes feel like reading an intercepted letter. It’s almost uncomfortable. Yet while the songs have their moments of expected musical smallness, of hushed words and strummed guitar, Elverum often chooses to mirror the emotional content of the lyrics (often represented with nature imagery) in the music itself, deploying icy chimes, oceans of pounding drums, thundering electric guitars, and field recordings of crackling fires. More recently, Matthew Houck, AKA Phosphoresent, has taken up a similar, although more sedate, songwriting style. His simple, mostly acoustic music (scarcely will you hear more than four chords in a song) is built into enormous, open spaces. Not as violent as Elverum, Houck’s songs tend to expand via warm choruses of voices; long, relaxed arrangements; epic reverb; and, of course, field recordings of thunderstorms. Both men are also hugely concerned with nature in their lyrics, Elverum’s towering mountains can stand in for the horrors of mortality while Houck sees the waves at night as both a reminder of that mortality and a sweet promise of all the beauty that awaits us until then.

Now, consider Jonas Bonnetta of Evening Hymns, the next in this line of autocratic, naturalistic songwriters with a flair for the climactic. Bonnetta described the recording of A-side “Dead Deer” to Ampeater thusly: “All my recording in the past has been really hushed and this was the first time I really got to play loud on a recording. I remember the snowy streets outside of the gallery and the people walking by the windows as we tracked the guitar and I was jumping into each chord pretending I was in a rock and roll band.” Aside from just being awesome, this anecdote shows us the new Bonnetta (most of his previous work has been under his given name instead of the Evening Hymns moniker). The content may remain dark and confessional, but the music is expansive, enormous, like the “stars in the desert” riddling the sky on B-side “Cedars,” which is a spacious elegy built around an electronically manipulated recording of a piano, which was played by a friend and then recorded from one floor down. Bonnetta’s innovations tend to come in this unobtrusive, humble way, in service of the songs. The piano drone is a perfect soundscape over which to set the direct address of “Cedars,” yet it never sticks out as something done for the sake of strangeness or an air of capital-A Art. It doesn’t even occur to you to ask what it is (it’s pretty much impossible to tell that it was once a piano) because it sounds so perfectly matched to the content.

Bonnetta is a native of the small town of Orono, Ontario, now transplanted to the urban environs of Toronto, but with a heart that still wanders out amongst the fields and forests. The image of cedar trees returns over and over again in his new album Spirit Guides, a record that gives you the same kind of feeling as gazing out at the tree-lined horizon at an hour when it seems like no one else in the world is awake. In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably tell you that this music was pretty much made for me: simple, lovely melodies; male vocals that sound as cracked and worn as old leather twinned in harmony with ethereally pure female vocals; mortality-heavy lyrics that hint at transcendence (“everybody’s gonna live forever and no one ever dies anyway”) and are delivered slightly behind the beat; huge climaxes with lush violins and flutes and pedal steel. Evening Hymns manages to walk the fine line between experimentation and melody, introspection and catharsis. They have songs, but they’re not going to hit you over the head with them, choosing instead to let them slowly, organically unspool, revealing lyrics about dying that somehow make you feel good.

A-side “Dead Deer” commences with the gentle, three chord acoustic strums you’d expect, opening out into the simple lyrical trope of exhausted lovers collapsed on the floor. It is both sweet and slightly unnerving, mingling imagery of salvation and hand-holding sweetness with the implied sex and animal exhaustion of the original image: “my body it lies like an ark / like a bridge over yours in the dark”. And then, about 90 seconds into the song, a savage electric guitar breaks everything open into the alarming chorus of “and I lie like a dead deer / down in the cedars.” That guitar feeds an electricity directly into the song. Maybe it’s naïve to think so, but you can practically feel Bonnetta jumping up and down with each huge chord and all the energy that movement imparts. Also note the slight asymmetry of the guitar part just after the titular words, the way the chords come every two beats instead of the expected three, which lends a slight discomfort to the music that pushes it onward. The electric guitar is so enormous it practically strips the lyrics from the vocals for the rest of the song, leaving only the soaring melodies and the occasional word or two that breaks through. Midway through the song, strings sneak in underneath to push the song to even further heights as that aching chorus melody churns and churns before finally withdrawing back into the original verse pattern, this time led by a gentle, understated accordion. The entire song has the shape of a wave crashing on shore – you can see the explosion coming from the opening chords, and soon the song is all sputtering foam and hungry fingers of water, but just afterwards, in that last instrumental verse, it looks as if none of it was ever there at all.

“Cedars” packs a lot of emotional weight for a B-side, opening with a minute of a slowly simmering drone before a hymnal chorus of Bonnettas sings the rubato verses in that unique voice of his, which shares the huskiness and rough imperfections of Houck (he doesn’t crack his voice anywhere nearly as much as as Houck does, though. I know that drives some people crazy), yet can transcend those flaws to rise into a lovely pure sound, as on the lines “lit up the stars in the desert / reveal the bending of the night.” Gentle fingerpicking and a sublime chorus of reverby, female oohs then replaces the drone, surrounding the vulnerable yet undramatic lead vocals with a translucent cloud of sound that gradually yields back into the drone, topped with a cluster of breathy flugelhorns and flutes and resolving into, god bless him, a field recording of a thunderstorm. It’s a device that almost shouldn’t work, it’s so frequently used, yet it does. There’s really not a much better way to conjure up that much open space, that much power and melancholy. And, if any song deserves the stately solemnity of a rainstorm, it’s an honest and serious elegy like this, written for Bonnetta’s father and full of the kind of mixed up feelings that kind of absence has to create: “Send for me my lanterns / send for me my maps / cause I lost all my direction / when you got caught in dark, dark traps.” The chorus ends with the words “everybody’s gonna live forever and no one ever dies anyway” a hopeful thought of living on, if only in memory, gently and sadly countered by the song’s last words, in which a gentle switch of focus lights up the singer’s own eventual mortality: “You can’t turn this boy around / getting older growing down.”

The Canadian press has been raving about Spirit Guides since its release last month, but us Yankees have been slow to pick up on things. I know it’s hard for us to admit that sometimes the Canadians can do things better (i.e. health care), but you know, maybe the sting will go away after we all sit down and listen to Evening Hymns for awhile. Let’s not let pride keep us away from this lovely album, eh?

AEM040 Verb the Adjective Noun

AEM040 Verb the Adjective Noun
  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Links: Free Download
  • Personnel: Shay Spence, Alexander Krispin, Luc Laurent, Wayne Whittaker, James Bookert

Verb the Adjective Noun like crescendos. Listening to their EPs (available for free at the adorably named www.welikeyoualot.com) brought to mind my first time hearing fellow folk-rock screamers Okkervil River. Each song (with the exception of Ampeater A-side “Madeline” which is a born power-pop single if I’ve ever heard one) begins with something nondescript: a few simple strummed chords or a gentle fingerpicking riff. The verse melodies tend to be pleasant but not aggressive. They flow by easily at first, usually taking a detour through a catchy, relaxed instrumental interlude and then somehow, by the end of each track, somersaulting into an absolutely cathartic explosion, carried by the worn out, raw vocals: usually a creaky baritone doubled in octaves by an expressive, quavery second voice (actually at the climaxes Verb the Adjective Noun tend to just f*ckin’ go for it and overdub about 100 vocal tracks, but these two are the most prominent; check out the chorus of “Madeline” for an example). The effect calls to mind another Boston native who specializes in weaving the simplest melodies and harmonies into gold, Tim Howard of Soltero.

You may be wondering why I haven’t identified these vocalists or even songwriters by name. Well, the thing is, the band has such a cheery community persona that you’d probably have to trek out to LA and see them live to even find out who’s singing each song (the singers have seriously distinctive voices but I have no idea which band members they are). When I contacted them to ask about an Ampeater single my extremely friendly, exclamation-happy correspondent neglected to even sign the emails with anything but “Verb”. I guess it’s possible that they answer emails collectively (the image of five dudes clustered around a laptop arguing about whether to close the email with “radical!” or “awesome!” is almost irresistible), but really what this means is that this is a band, not some collection of dudes biding their time before they can launch their own solo projects. This spirit is crucial to any band that has multiple songwriters. There’s always the danger in such situations that the personalities of the frontmen can diverge so violently that it’s like listening to two different bands, but Verb puts up a consistently unified front. If the seams are there, they’ve been spackled over with precision, and the resulting music has that perfect band chemistry that manages to bring out the strengths of each member and keep any indulgences in check.

Verb the Adjective Noun formed in early 2008 as a trio composed of songwriters Shay Spence, Alexander Krispin, and Luc Laurent, and recorded their debut EP Novella in a church in the summer of 2008. They followed it up in December with Reds, from which these two songs are culled, adding Wayne Whittaker and James Bookert to the live band to fill out the incredibly expansive sound of tracks like “Madeline” with its tolling bells and booming drums. The enormity of the drum sound on this track cannot be overstated. It sounds like the drums on The Soft Bulletin, like someone beating on planets with columns of fire.

As I mentioned above, “Madeline” has has all the marks of a song that magically descended from above and poured out of some lucky dude’s guitar perfectly intact, like Athena leaping out of Zeus’s head. You can always tell when you hear these songs. They’re the kind that come into existence effortlessly, and you know that when the songwriter finished them and sat back for a second, he thought “whoa, what just happened?” Like all great pop songs, it has that mysterious whole that is so much more than the sum of its melodic and harmonic parts, which, as per Verb the Adjective Noun’s mission statement, are all “simplicity and raw energy.” The chorus itself is just pure, gooey, pop joy, but the more you listen to the song the more you begin to see how everything else is perfectly placed: the bell sounds during the breaks that just crack the song wide open, the switch of the chorus drum feel right at the word “Madeline”, the breakdown and huge crescendo just when you thought the song was over (an old trick, but there’s a reason it’s still around: it works), the shivery, tense guitar solo that manages to be just totally naturally weird (like, Jeff Tweedy on painkillers weird) without disturbing the essential pop core of the song. Another layer leaps out with every listen.

B-side “Oh! Catastrophe,” despite its trendily placed exclamation point, brings the folk rock origins of the band more to the fore. The lyrics concern what seems to be a nastily failed relationship that culminates in the narrator burning down his apartment (take my everything / leave me smoldering). It hinges on that semi-secret relationship between disaster and freedom, in which a certain joyful liberation comes from losing everything you have in a traumatic and sudden way. The music is slow build set to a loping 6/8, filled out by a shimmering organ and what sounds like a vibraphone, both metallic, light sounds that seem to mirror the lyrical fire. The vocals pull back hard on the time, shivering with emotion at the ends of lines, and building up through an organ led instrumental break and into the big catharsis of the last chorus, where the song leaps to the minor four, always a good move for a climax, and the vocals howl “do your worst to me” over and over with an energy that could be either despair or elation. It’s way too risky to be cool, and there’s something to be said for that.

Verb the Adjective Noun is still a young band, and you can be sure that their sound is still developing, pushing against the energy boundaries of acoustic instruments (the volume difference between the two EPs is dramatic) and perhaps towards the sound laid out in power pop tracks like “Madeline.” Still, no matter what direction they head in, you can be sure that the richly beating hearts behind their dynamic early work will keep simplicity, energy and warm, breathing humanity at the core of their songs.

AEM035 King Expressers

AEM035 King Expressers
  • Location: Brooklyn, NY
  • Links: Facebook
  • Personnel: Mikey Hart (guitar), Nikhil P. Yerawadekar (bass), Rich Levinson (drums)

Okay, so today I am going to tell you about three young Brooklynites playing pop music that draws heavily from Ghanaian highlife and Congolese soukouss and I’m going to ask you not to sneer.  I mean, let’s all put aside our kneejerk Vampire Weekend Paul Simon reflexes and think about this for a second.  Why do we feel like we’re supposed to look down on such things?  Usually it is a question of authenticity, connected to some imagined exploitation or imperialistic colonization of styles of music and musicians from the third world.  First of all, let me just throw some wrenches into this authenticity thing.  I mean, it’s almost too easy.  The idea that there is some racially pure music out there is just ridiculous, and the idea that it would be somehow more real (what does that even mean?) or automatically better than any of the countless hybrids we have is just kind of stupid.  Highlife itself  was already a fusion of Western and African music back in the 1930s when it emerged.  According to afropop.org, it was a blend of Trinidadian calypso, military brass band music, Cuban son and older African song forms with the addition of American swing music a decade later during WWII.  Do you have an urge to go back to Ghana 1941 and sneer at them for defiling their culture with swing music?  See how silly this all is?  Highlife was never anything but a hybrid, one piece of dialogue in the eternal conversation of culture.  I may be out on a limb here but I’d say there is something way more imperialistically iffy and patronizing about wanting to quarantine various foreign musics in order to preserve them like museum pieces (read: kill them) than there is about oh, I dunno, going to Ghana and learning how to play some of their music and then letting it into your own, which is what the King Expressers have done.  Culture is only alive when it is changing and growing, kids.

Now, I just wasted your time, because the second you hear this music, you are not going to give a rat’s ass about authenticity.  You are going to be too busy chairdancing in front of your laptop.  The King Expressers are primarily guitarist Mikey Hart, bassist Nikhil P. Yerawadekar, and drummer Rich Levinson, though on these recordings they are joined by an enormous horn section (nine pieces!) and two backup vocalists (Hart and Yerawadekar share primary vocal duties).  Their music is often sort of like a sped-up version of soukouss, as they say, and it has the chiming, polyphonic guitars that American rock bands tend to lift from Afropop, but really it is a soup of all sorts of influences.  There is, for example, that snare hit about a minute into A-side “Passed Ascension Parish” that suddenly echoes expansively, nodding at the entire genre of dub reggae in about one second.  Or the asymmetry and freedom of form in both songs, resulting in time shifts, feel shifts, key shifts, etc.  There are even clear rock cousins, like Islands, who you almost expect to hear crooning “swans, swans, swans,” over the bass and guitar drone after the introduction to “The Real True Story.”

“Passed Ascension Parish” (which appears to be a Hurricane Katrina themed love song, and is in any case the happiest sounding Katrina-related song I have ever heard) kicks off with the kind of liquid, sunny guitars that we know and love from our previous Afropop experiences, lifted recently to great effect by scads of rock bands (Dirty Projectors, Islands, Vampire Weekend, a million more).  You can instantly hear how accomplished the musicians are here.  As a band, when you have musicians who can play anything they want without batting an eye, doors just open in every direction.  The vocals aren’t showy, but they lock perfectly in tune and time and the band kicks right along underneath, answering occasionally with a little bass or guitar burst.  The kind of relaxed momentum the King Expressers display here is the opposite of the frantic trampling of punk rock (which I also enjoy): it’s the assured drive of people who are in total control.  This relaxed tightness is the exact thing that makes you want to dance.  When the choral vocals come in, though the words are about rain, the music is pure sun, so warm and light and easy.  This is the other beautiful thing about technique, it lets you make hard things sound easy.  Halfway through, the song revs up and leaps into a speedy soukouss feel (sounds like reggaeton to me, but I’m pretty green when it comes to this stuff) and the different melodies that just keep pouring out of the keyboards, guitars, horns and voices are almost overwhelming.  It’s a euphoric moment that lasts for three whole minutes, all the way to the last horn and voice swell.  Like I said, pure sun.

If “Passed Ascension Parish” is drinking a beer on the porch, B-side “The Real True Story” is going out to a house party later.  More upbeat and quickfooted, “The Real True Story” starts with a nursery-rhyme simple melody (note the way Levinson plays the melody on the drums the first time through before busting into a skittery solo on the second repeat) and then builds all the way up through the bouncing verse melody into a fantastic horn breakdown with a wooly, howling baritone sax solo and some punchy brass fanfares.  Dig the madly leaping bass or the way that all the instruments unite to play the little descending line in the middle of each chorus.  Listening to the lyrics, which are pretty straight-forward love lyrics, show us how fully assimilated the King Expressers influences are.  They aren’t making music that is self-consciously foreign, they are making the music that comes naturally to them, about their lives.  There’s nothing put on or gimmicky about it.  It’s just amazing pop music that holds up perfectly to repeated listens (I’m going on number ten here and I’m still bobbing my head just the way I was on number one).

On both tracks, keep an eye out for the subtlety of the arrangements, which hold your hand all the way through each song so perfectly you’d never even notice.  New instruments are constantly emerging to reinforce the feeling of progress, to keep any section from simply being a repeat of something earlier.  The overlapping melodies at the end of “Passed Ascension Parish” or the synthy keyboard in the second verse of “The Real True Story” or the alto sax that jumps in for the last, what, two bars of the final chorus on the latter are perfect examples of how these guys are never going to let their listeners get bored.  Sadly, these two songs comprise all the recordings to emerge from the Expressers’ loft in Brooklyn so far, but we can all hope there’s more coming soon, and in the meantime we can stop our hiding our taste for rock bands with Afropop influences and start laughing off the authenticity police.  Or at the very least handing them a beer and telling them to dance.

(Full Disclosure: Graceland is one of the author’s favorite albums of all time, and when he was five years old he used to yell “Gwaceland!” until his mom put it on the turntable so he could toddle around the room to it.  He has never been to Ghana.)

AEM030 The Milkman’s Union

AEM030 The Milkman’s Union
  • Location: Portland, ME
  • Links: Website, Bandcamp, Twitter
  • Personnel: Henry Jamison (vox), Sean Weathersby, Akiva Zamcheck, Peter McLaughlin (drums)

It took me several listens to really get inside The Milkman’s Union.  Yes, it sounded like good, independently produced rock music.  You know, electric guitars, wordy lyrics, drums that lingered somewhere between time keeping and expressionist flourishes.  It wasn’t until I sat down exhausted in a darkening room and stared out at the heavy blue skies of early winter evening while hearing the line “I drove home in a long line of cars” listlessly intoned by singer Henry Jamison that it all clicked into place.  It’s all there in that one image: the highway at night (has to be night), the long line of beat little cars with their beat little drivers staring straight ahead, moving in bleak unison, oozing worms of light out into the blue that blink over the desiccated skeletons of winter trees each time the road bends.  The heavy crunch of tires on the gravel driveway and the sudden yawning silence when the engine is cut.  That moment of no thought when the driver disappears somewhere even he doesn’t know, just before he clanks the seatbelt and steps through the silence and into the house, each footstep’s sound hanging crisp in the cold air.  Melancholy.  Not sure how I ever missed it.  The Milkman’s Union is lousy with it, and it’s the weary, faded blue of those winter skies, not to mention most of the music I lost myself in during my lonely high school years.

Jamison, who started the project in high school as a solo affair before being joined by Peter McLaughlinSean Weathersby, and Akiva Zamcheck, lists Ben Gibbard as a main influence, and you can hear it in that The Milkman’s Union are young educated folk making highly accessible, deeply melancholy pop rock with a literary bent.  But where Gibbard is goopy and schoolboyish, there’s something academic and world weary about Jamison’s dry vocals.  It threw me at first, but now I like it.  It doesn’t have the clean purity of Gibbard’s voice, but clean purity gets boring pretty fast, and there’s something addictive about the wispy airiness of Jamison’s singing.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that someone who sounds so tired can never sound maudlin or dramatic.  It’s hard to pin down.   At times it seems like his voice isn’t even there, like it’s a ghost telling you about the marigolds in the hair of some long ago lover (those are lyrics. I’m not being pretentious anymore).  In fact, there is an air of wilting, 1920s decadence that permeates the entire Roads In album from which these tracks are lifted.  Someone’s always pouring a drink (and it’s never beer), and the songs’ narrators are constantly reading  (I read a little book on the origin of man) and delivering wryly nasty punchlines (how many gentlemen does it take to screw you in?).  I mean, the former two are the main activities in college, so it makes sense, and maybe the song about the 1919 White Sox scandal is tainting my thoughts, but there’s just something old-fashioned sounding about a band who uses a phrase like I’ve been duped again as a chorus.

Jamison, in his blurb for the band, identifies this era of The Milkman’s Union as a point in an evolution, and he’s exactly right.  There are periodic moments of uncertainty, things you’d expect from such a young band.  A sudden lurch of the tempo, like driving over a speedbump, or a word at the end of a line left floating awkwardly.  Yet these things don’t disturb the mood, which is the meat of the music.  The vocals are always hinting at the large, aching emotions of the musical backdrops, but they refuse to go there themselves.  Note that the big climax of A-side “Roads In” comes sans vocals.  Zamcheck’s winding, modal guitar solo steps forward to provide catharsis.  Jamison’s voice never ever rises above a mutter, and the lyrics remain elusive, but sometimes the violent house-cleaning kind of confession is far less interesting than the disquieting odds and ends that we’re given here.  There’s a mystery there that’s alluring.  It’s not the girl who throws her cleavage in your face every chance she gets, it’s the one who hardly even looks at you, but every once in a while maybe you catch her in a little surreptitious glance.

Peter McLaughlin’s shimmery drums are a crucial element to this mystery, drawing heavily from non-rock musical traditions in a way that keeps their music from ever getting bogged down in its own emotional weight, which is all too easy for this kind of melancholia.  The latin-tinged mallets that commence “Roads In” are an open sky where a backbeat would have been a closed door.  They keep the listener uncertain while pushing the time forward, and so does the asymmetry behind the second verse.  Over on B-side “Emerald Flares” the prim jazz brushes neatly buoy the song up, keeping it floating and airy.  This lightness is crucial in music with such a pervasive sadness, and it’s surprisingly difficult to accomplish, since of course it must sound effortless.

I could describe the songs in greater detail, talk about the sweetly melodic bass and hazy lead lines coasting over “Emerald Flares”, the drumless Yo La Tengo-y (think “Green Arrow”) interludes in “Roads In” that seem to hang in the air like slow-motion footage of something thrown aloft, but I don’t think I need to.  The music conjures up its own cloud of mood the moment it comes on.  Just try to listen at dusk.

 

AEM026 Spirit Kid

AEM026 Spirit Kid

Those of you familiar with Showtime’s Weeds might already have rubbed aural elbows with Spirit Kid (A.K.A. Emeen Zarookian, the man with the most fabulous name in the universe) via an online only promo video (see below) that lifts his madly catchy and jangly Ampeater A-side “You Lit Up For Me” and gleefully reinterprets the lyrics in a way that you need only stare at the song title for two seconds to guess at. In fact, the song is secretly an elegy to a lost and puddle-killed cell phone (think about it: you fell down / out of my pocket and into the sea / you lit up for me), and this contrast between the hidden, mundane inspiration and the perfectly open ended lyrics is a perfect distillation of Spirit Kid. “You Lit Up For Me” is a perfect, concise pop song, recorded with a warm, full and just slightly muddy sound that sounds both musically and tonally straight out of 1965 (Zarookian lists the Beatles, Kinks, Beach Boys, and Zombies as influences and let me tell you, you can hear it in the best way) and yet with a secretly contemporary source. Who among us doesn’t know the anxiety of a lost cell phone? Who would think to write a song about it? Meet the Spirit Kid, a man who, in his own words, is trying to capture “a child-like willingness to experience the world with open eyes and a open heart, something that many of us, including me, often let slip away with our own daily problems.”

Spirit Kid songs are short and crammed to bursting with ideas. They stand in direct opposition to anything even remotely shaggy, as sharply dressed as those aforementioned English pop heroes of the sixties. They would sound surgical if they weren’t so damned fun, performed with a charming looseness that belies the years this album has been in the making. You can hear lord knows how many Emmens shouting “I miss you terribly” on “You Lit Up For Me” in a big, bawling chorus of voices that you’d never hear on a more cleanly produced (read: sterile) album. It’s the kind of shouty vocal harmony that’s not supposed to be perfectly in harmony. There’s a thickness to this kind of sound that autotune can never reach with its unnecessary clarity (nothing against autotune, which can clearly be used to do some cool shit but should never, ever be applied to the vocals in a guitars-bass-drums-catchysongs kind of rock band). Album cut “Wait A Minute” pretty much dissolves halfway through in a pile of full kit crashes and guitar solos before popping back into the bubbly country pop verses. The fact that Zarookian recorded this entire record himself (with mixing help from Jack Younger of 247 Studios) in bedrooms, bathrooms, basement rec rooms, graffiti-covered practice spaces, etc., etc., lends the whole thing a warmth and relaxed energy that just doesn’t materialize in albums constructed in imposing studios.

Though Zarookian’s musical roots lie mostly in the tight (bounce-a-quarter-off-that-song tight) mod pop of decades hence, he has cousins in recent times as well. Dr. Dog, especially on their near-flawless Easybeat, drew from some of the same pools, bringing back the big vocal harmonies and fluid, traditional harmony that makes Lennon/Mccartney songs sound so endlessly inventive and yet perfectly logical. That style of harmony (which incidentally is a huge part of why all those girl group pop songs that came out of the Brill Building are so amazing, when you combine it with the whole Phil Spector production style) is mostly neglected these days in favor of a minimalist diatonic (read: boring, two chords, maybe three) kind of thing.

Another musical relative is Elliott Smith, who you can hear in the ascending bridge of B-side “My Imagination”, in the way the melody on another album track (“The World Doesn’t Stop”) resolves down a half step instead of the expected whole step, in the pure melody of the guitar solos, in the tight vocal harmonies and use of fancy little diminished passing chords, and who of course played all the instruments on his first few albums much in the way Zarookian does here. But don’t let that make you think the attitude here is anything but joyous or the playing anything but accomplished. The drumming is propulsive and never shaky, pushing the piano riff of “My Imagination” forward with enough force to make it sound like a lost Big Star cut. The bass playing deserves 1000 words on its own, generating enough melodies to make about three more records. Check out the way it navigates the modulating half-time section of the bridge of “My Imagination”, just spitting out ideas left and right. The piano hits hard and nails the obligatory giant glissandos at the climaxes. The vocals, as mentioned, perfectly pin down all the harmonies, for example the echoing I get scareds or ooh la la las in the second verse of “My Imagination”.

“You Lit Up For Me”, the aforementioned A-side, is a perfectly crafted pop gem, with crescendoing mobs of voices over the kind of loping country feel that shows up on a few of the other album tracks, here trading off with more reserved, open interludes. The way the vocals build and build up into an avalanche that tumbles right into the rolling, jouncing percussion of the verses is the most immediate evidence of Spirit Kid’s genius for that long stretched and bruised art form: the song. The multiple layers of vocals that emerge after each extended verse chord are perfect, pure momentum, leaping in each time you think the chord just has to change. It’s the kind of song you want to listen to whilst cutting down the street on a sunny Sunday afternoon with not much on your mind, maybe on your way out to get some brunch, preferably on repeat.

“My Imagination” is more complex, with more sections and more of those fantastic bass lines climbing all over the place like kids on a jungle gym. The song itself is great, catchy, full of motion, but even more than that there are the endless tiny touches of idiosyncrasy, the kind of thing that makes albums like, say, Pet Sounds so amazing and permanently listenable. The way the bass doesn’t seriously enter until that ballsy fill around 11 seconds; the aforementioned ooh la la las, the way that every drum break on that minor chord comes back not on the one but a half beat early, the constant shifting of drum feels, the modulations and modulations of the bridge rising all the way into the triumphant falsetto, the drum fill at 2:15, the call and response of the harmony vocals just after that (“not tough”), the phasered “my my my imagination” over the ending. There is so much in these songs. I could keep going, too, though for practical reasons (read: boredom) I will spare you.

The great thing, for you, for me, for the Spirit Kid, is that these songs are A) so intoxicatingly enjoyable that it takes no effort whatsoever to just nod your head and think yes and B) so well arranged and interestingly built that you can sit here and write, oh, I dunno, 1259 words on them and there will still be more and more and more to say. It’s a shame it looks like the album’s going to be coming out in the winter, because it really deserves to be the soundtrack to your next summer. Those of you in New Zealand take note.