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Nashville Scene Gold Sounds

Dreamy Austin group hits its stride on new LP

By Noel Murray

AUGUST 16, 1999: 

American Analog Set The Golden Band (Emperor Jones)

American Analog Set specialize in peaceful alt-rock lullabies, a craft that they've honed to an art on their third full-length release. Playing their drums with brushes as much as with sticks, and offering meek vocals that barely register over the buzz of a simple organ, this Austin collective generates melodies that sway back and forth like small trees in a hot Texas wind.

For this outing, the band has made two slight modifications to their style--one obvious, one subtle. The change that stands out is a newfound brevity. On their previous two records, AmAnSet's songs stretched out past the five-minute mark, rolling on hypnotically, inexorably--like highway stripes slipping beneath tires. The Golden Band features a few longer tunes, but it's rounded out by brief, sub-three-minute flights that shoot into the air, glide around in a circle, and touch back down immediately.

The songs aren't necessarily improved through their contraction--AmAnSet's sound is really better suited to lengthy, lulling repetition, and the band seems to acknowledge this tacitly by bunching up its shortest songs into the four-part "New Drifters." Indeed, much of the latter half of the record drifts by as though it were one extended song--although this is a sign that these particular musicians are in a groove, not that they're repeating themselves.

The band's other, more subtle development is signaled by the title of its latest album. The earlier discs by American Analog Set had a late-night vibe, as though it were 3 in the morning, the band had been playing for hours, and someone just happened to switch on the tape machine. Much of The Golden Band sounds like it was taped at "the magic hour"--that floating twilight time as the sun goes down and the world is cast in a warm, golden light. These Texans' music is magical in much the same way: They place a few basic sounds in the right place, so that their songs give off a lovely glow.

The Beta Band self-titled (Astralwerks)

These Scottish do-it-yourselfers were introduced to Americans earlier this year with The Three EPs, an aptly named compilation of their first recordings. In classic UK cult-band fashion, the disc raised more questions than it answered. The liner notes said little about the musicians involved or what they played; the music inside could've been created by ghosts. With little instrumentation--just a bit of guitar here, a little piano there--the 12 songs relied mostly on semi-danceable beats and droning, multi-tracked vocals.

The Beta Band's first full-length album is both weirder and more accessible. "The Beta Band Rap," which opens the album, is a jokey mlange--a biography of the band told first as though it were a TV commercial, then a stoner hip-hop track, then a rockabilly rave-up. The album as a whole is largely a series of epic-length, tripped-out trance cuts splashed with mass-media noise--tracks like "It's Not Too Beautiful" and "The Cow's Wrong" are built around one- or two-note instrumental vamps, vocal harmonies that drip slowly, and orchestral samples that rise and fall in volume, as if they were coming from a poorly-tuned radio. Elsewhere, the Betas are big on rushed, mantra-like singing and lyrics that comment on the Beach Boys or rewrite old Bonnie Tyler songs.

What all this is supposed to amount to is difficult to determine, but it's more fun than it has a right to be. Maybe that's because the band straddles a line between arty obliqueness and goofy affability--both attitudes probably inspired by an excess of weed. The Beta Band starts out like an order of monks marching down from an abbey in the Scottish highlands, chanting all the way, and as they wander the streets of the first city they come to, the bits of sound and conversation that they overhear alter the song, until they stop intoning about God and begin humming the themes from Saturday-morning cartoons. Sort of the archetypal journey of modern life, really.

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