Friday, August 5, 2011

The Antlers: Burst Apart (2011)



It seems rather appropriate that the Antlers' highest profile opening slot was for the National, whose more masculine moodiness seems an ideal complement to this Brooklyn band's equally beautiful but somewhat less stoic atmospherics. The treasure the two bands share is an unassuming knack for anthemic songs that sneak up from below -- tunes as adept at blending in gorgeously to a dark soul-searching night's background as to careful study and obsession. The best precedent for this kind of intricately detailed, sad but rewarding music might be "E-Bow the Letter"-era R.E.M., when that band was at their most confident in the notion of submerging catchy songs in many layers of deceptively muddy sonics. The tension this provides, the air of discovery that results, is more than a little addictive.

The Antlers are at their best when playing up their way, however abstract, with grandiosity; "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out" is the kind of intelligently casual but still breathtaking torch song Travis spent years shooting for. "I Don't Want Love" hits hard with shades of '90s adult contemporary, but the song hides its gravely serious, exciting precision behind its shockingly adept midtempo pop bliss. The staggering "No Widows" -- possibly the most purely lovely rock song since the Shins' "Red Rabbits" -- shoves the homebody out into an urgent, demanding nighttime, stark processed drums surrounded by synthesized drama and absorbing harmonies. You won't find any heavy Arcade Fire melodramatics here -- a certain scrappy modesty is present everywhere... except the singing, which makes for an intriguing conflict.

Lead vocalist and founder Peter Silberman can sometimes seem on the verge of being precious, moony -- his high-as-fuck falsetto (listen to that crescendo on the film noirish "Rolled Together," the kind of track that slows down when the beat starts) and melodic precision call to mind the usual suspects: Antony Hegarty, Jeff Buckley, and especially Bronski Beat's Jimmy Somerville, whose "Why" was likely a reference point. On the verses of the magical "Hounds" (probably the strongest cut of the album), Silberman's resistance to filtering pays off in spades, justifying everything else; he taps into such a moment, such a universally devastating attitude and melody in which to revel, that the music seems to bend and wind according to his whims. The intoxication of the surprisingly busy instrumentation recedes into marginality, as does the achingly slow pacing of the song.

Showing himself capable of that kind of command, Silberman could get away with anything. But happily, he elsewhere corrects for hyperemotional tendencies that are inherent to his vocal style in two ways: first, by infusing his singing with variance and personality, in the vein of Thom Yorke, without reveling in the twee prettiness that might seem his obvious destiny. Secondly and more externally, he and his pair of bandmates offer an indispensable grittiness that makes the record work. Silberman and keyboardist Darby Cicci offer keenly minimalistic but strikingly lush electronic backing that, like the techno embellishments on The King of Limbs, serve to give the lie to the notion that electronic-tinged music's emotional range is one-note. Early standout "French Exit" plays a Paul Simon-filtered riff against an irresistible ambient texture to create something simultaneously populist and chilly. This is impressively warm music, and it owes much of that to the juxtaposition of cold Eno backing tracks with Silberman's overwhelming voice and the persuasive, incongruous but somehow perfect work by admirably insistent percussionist Michael Lerner.

It's Lerner's beat that sets the stage for the album on "I Don't Want Love" and marks the twists into its most immediate moments; "Parentheses" feels completely shapeless until Lerner's immersive, insistent drums take effect, while Silberman's operatic drawl swirls around. Better yet, Lerner lays the groundwork for the closing track, "Putting the Dog to Sleep," which has the same insistently grand qualities as "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out," but with a burst of guitar and organ suggestive of the Antlers' future as a more organically-minded rock band that still retains its committment to the joy of a plodding mood piece. That song's one of those here that instantly takes up residence in a listener. But the real pleasure of Burst Apart comes from an extended exposure that can't really be anticipated. The joy of feeling these songs gradually fall into place and become individual pieces is vividly reminiscent of High Violet and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, both superb records. But some of the impact is immediate -- the record as a whole will hit you as something special instantly, at least in part because in the back of your mind you can sense how much its initially indistinct pieces will one day mean to you, all ten of 'em.

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