When we talk about the second-wave psychedelic, there’s an implied tonality that rests on the ease and timbre of the dark, easily played pentatonic. With bands like Wooden Shijps or the Black Angels or Crystal Stilts or A Place To bury Strangers, certain signifiers of voice or composition may delineate identity, but it’s all in the same mob. So too, the modern folk idiom requires a certain tonal commitment to a bright, heartfelt twang that is perfectly exemplified in Okkerville River or Fleet Foxes or Blitzen Trapper, or at times Menomena. Somehow Luke Wyland, the mastermind behind Portland, OR’s AU, has found a way to fuse these tonalities of dark and bright with apparent ease, resulting in a tarnished nostalgia that seeps through the band’s new album, Both Lights. The 2012 release for Hometapes and The Leaf Label situates itself between the seedy depths of the new-psychers and the naturalist flash of the freak-folkers. It’s an utterly American album of composed (as in: Wyland is a Composer) art-pop that really can’t be categorized in any other way.
When Wyland dropped his staggering 2008 sophomore document Verbs on Aagoo Records, it was a testament to its title: the compositions slipped, slid, jumped, crashed, fell, spun, sagged, crouched, flipped, backpedaled, napped, clashed, twisted, implored, and instigated. Its stickiest single, “RR vs. D,” for example jagged from break-beat choral punch to Sousaphone-soused ensemble with barely a nod. It was a frenetic little release that went disastrously underrated in even some alt-press, not to mention its utter lack in the musical mainstream. Wyland and a gang of musicians, as many as 20 to a take, recorded the entire thing in three days—Wyland finished the record in his home studio alone over the next month and a half. Around this time, Dana Valatka–drummer for jazz-noise Portland experimentalists Mustaphamond—found his way into Wyland’s little fold. They traveled relentlessly, heading to Rhode Island where Valatka kept some drums, and heading back west and so forth, all the while touring on Wyland’s compositions. To watch this coalesce before my eyes was exciting; but clearly the full potential of the pairing wouldn’t be realized until Valatka became a central part of composition.
On Both Lights, the title again reflects its composition just exactly. Wyland’s sadness-soaked patina serves as flesh to the skeleton of Valatka’s propulsive, virtuosic drumming. Verging on the edges of thrash and free jazz, notions of taste are shouldered out by irrefutable musicality. The combination of these two friends and the examination of this document of their relationship is something inscrutable, full of beauty, and inspiring. Musically, they latch tighter than a line of riot police–organized and as one and intimidating.
Wyland’s always been onto a Reichian distillation of art pop: the repetitious style of playing done here trumps something every kid with a Line 6 looper has tried over the last 10 or so years, but he does it with his hands. You can hear the fluttering waggle of his rolls over the piano’s upper registers throughout the album, most apparent on leading cut “Get Alive.” This neoclassical bent will throw off crowds just in notion, as this could be some of the stickiest music to unravel–but only if the listener’s mission is to do so across its 41 minutes. It’s complex in the tradition of Western art, with a veneer that allows literally any person with ears for the last 25 years to enjoy. It’s bright, hopeful, heavy, complex, textural, angelic, and clean, an excellent-sounding document at the edge of over-produced. If it were not for the great performances laid to tape here, this would be far too clean a record.
Both Lights functions as a slight reworking of songwriting methods from Verbs, but with the time to breathe Wyland really couldn’t give himself during the recording of that earlier piece. The lethargic strings on Verbs’s “Summerheat” make a decent reappearance on “Go Slow,” the first of a triptych that ends the album with Phil Elvelrum or Earth-styled heaving beats and globules of tone. Single “Solid Gold” rehashes some of the reedy Guatemalan marimba that graced the end of “RR vs. D.” Where Valatka takes his reprieve, Wyland's piano playing shines through. A small share the duo will compensate with a provocative full mix in live settings.
AU has the ear for the operatic. For example, opener “Epic” swarms with a well-placed ensemble of horns near the end, pushing the heart abreast and recalling Aaron Copeland in ostinato as much Do Make Say Think in instrumentation. Really, Charles Ives and Animal Collective will still appear as the easiest touchstones. But there, Ives is too overlooked for inspiration and Animal Collective too over-examined for want of a tangible contemporary—trouble is, AU has never really had one. This new album especially dodges any similarity to that band’s catalog. AU’s managed to wedge itself in a nullspace where they have a formidable back catalog, the road chops to prove their worth, enough of a following to break through with support, the technical ability to not burn out, and a sheer force of joy that winds the heart like a spring. This music isn’t a thrust of identity at the listener—this music simply has the girth and potential to be every listener, simply by the subtlety and construction of its cues.