The folks down at the Duodecimal Society may have one thing right – baker’s dozens are surely a standard measure, musically speaking (although, in this case, Toklas brownies are probably the goods served in this album’s domain). Ashes Grammar, the second full-length album from Philadelphia-based collective A Sunny Day In Glasgow, docks in at an impressive twenty-two tracks but can be easily compressed. Even Ben Daniels, a co-founding member, admits that originally the tracklist contained thirteen songs; longer songs that some intense editing broke up further. The band itself accommodates all this output with eight members – Daniels, his two twin sisters Robin and Lauren, Josh Meakim, Annie Frederickson, Bryce Hickey, Mich White and the fantastically named Beverly Science – and some electronic software that splices, polishes, trims and cross-links their music together.
Ashes Grammar sounds like techno on tranquilisers and moshpits on morphine. But small dosages, please. In a dozen songs and then some, the band introduces electronic sounds that lie on top of another, pulsating with a developing beat. Much of these digitally remastered noises echo off one’s headphones – many tracks here give the impression of being recorded in a Gothic cathedral, where the acoustics would have caused the ribbed vaults to vibrate and the stained glass to mist up slightly with the stuff of dreams. This isn’t, after all, sticky pop; Ashes Grammar is theme music for a summer nap in a poppy field, releasing itself from any limits, brackets or musical definitions. Indeed, ‘Curse Words’ defies its title in silken whispering, and even if the ladies are crooning damnation, it comes in the form of tranquil lullabies. This song folds seamlessly over into ‘Close Chorus’, which rebels aginst notions of set song structure, choosing instead to pursue a chorus for an intoxicating six and a half minutes. Another beautiful piece, thrillingly short at just 42 seconds, ‘Secrets At The Prom’ contains ghostly mutterings, lovely in a delicate, haunting way, before melting into ‘Slaughter Killing Carnage (Meaning Of Words)’. Among the other more ear-catching moments are ‘Canalfish’, which enters and exits in a spiky-finned manner, ‘West Philly Vocoder’ with its stainless steel chiming, and ‘Shy’, for its not-so-timid layering of sounds.
While each song has a unique, identifying quality to it – not perceivable at first, but a realisation that strikes after two or three replays – the overall impression Ashes Grammar creates is washed out and fleeting. There’s bubblegum pop and then there’s cotton-candy pop, spun sugar that gets carried by the wind like errant pastel-coloured thoughts. Ashes Grammar is valuable because it questions conventions about the content of music; perhaps we should all tune into another frequency of loss of conscious thought and welcome instead a stream of slippered, foggy tones. These songs are good for attempting to hum in empty tunnels, but the problem with shoegazing is that the material risks becoming uniform, if only because its ideals seek such abstraction that followers produce identically bleached music. Once lyrics are half-heartedly erased and electronic pulsation is put in its place, it takes genuine skill to keep the category going. But Ashes Grammar teases with filmy vocals, tickles lightly with words, sheds song structure and chooses to give the listener free rein, providing a title as framework and an album of distinction within a genre that may once more be losing its lustre.
It’s A Sunny Day in Glasgow and it seems the only thing to throw the whole weather prediction chart off is punctuation powder floating after the explosion of words, Ashes Grammar rising and falling in the ether.
[Mis Ojos Discos; September 14, 2009]