Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Album + Live: Her Vanished Grace

Album: See the Moon
Athame Music, 2011
Rating: ******* (7/10)

I've more or less retired from reviewing local shoegaze and shoegaze-affiliated bands for a number of reasons, but against my better judgment, I'm temporarily suspending the moratorium to do a couple of reviews.

First against the wall is Her Vanished Grace, who are not really a shoegaze band but are a part of that scene. Their music is dream pop - a style that takes the processed layers of shoegaze but tones them down enough to make audible their concisely-written indieish pop tunes. At times, HVG sounds more like U2 than they do My Bloody Valentine.

Her Vanished Grace have been making music in NYC for about twenty years now. The core of the band are married couple Nance and Charlie Nieland who both play guitar and trade lead vocal roles. For quite a while now, the duo has been joined by a rhythm section of Maria Theodosiadou (bass) and Billy Loose (drums). The quartet cranks out a new album every year or two and despite the volume of output (it adds up after this many years), the quality of the band's LPs is impressively consistent.

There is a parallel consistency between the tracks of their latest release, See the Moon. None of the record's eleven tracks sound like filler; each seems to have been given the same level of attention. Rather than looking for a way to fill up 45 minutes, the band seems to have waited until they had 45 minutes of material, then released their record.

Just because the songs are given equal attention doesn't mean they are equally successful. There are some standout moments, like the second track, "Passenger," and the album's lush centerpiece "Beauty Lingers." There are some awesome bass lines ("Make It Lighter" is the best example of many) and strong melodies and drumming throughout.

If you have low tolerance for sappy pop cliches, there are plenty of points where this album will put you off, but that's the nature of the genre. The album is genuine and for music so "dreamy," it's strikingly down-to-earth. Although the sound is beautiful, the transitions can be charmingly un-smooth, a reminder that this band is indeed just regular folk in a modest Brooklyn studio, great soundsmiths and great songwriters but neither aloof nor pretentious. Even the processing on some of the vocals and all of the guitars reminds us of the music's humanity even as it gives aural polish.

When: May 19
Where: Pianos

I love seeing HVG live mainly because the band loves playing live. Many bands are so mired in ambition, whether it be for major label deals or hipster cred or artistic revolution, that they seem to forget why most of us got into playing in the first place - it's fun. But every time they take the stage, HVG seem delighted just to play their songs for their friends and whoever happens to want to listen . That's not to say the band is without ambition - but whatever hopes they may have for their music, they enjoy the moment for what it is.

On stage, Charlie and Nance are one of those adorable couples that seems to still really, really like each other even though they've been together quite a while as bandmates and spouses, stealing admiring glances at each other across the stage. Meanwhile, unassuming badass Theodosiadou rocks out over on stage left, her face seldom visible from behind a curtain of hair. And Loose manages to find a technique that's surprisingly interesting for an oppressively mid-tempo, 4/4 genre, filling the sound with swelling fills and crashing cymbals without once overplaying.

HVG aren't out to shatter preconceived notions about art. They aren't out to be cooler than you or to get rich. They're day-job types who have spent years making music they love. And their sincerity (and no small amount of talent) makes them a refreshing, compelling and relevant band that will outlast trend and whim alike.

I also want to make a quick note about the other band I saw at Pianos on Thursday, one Dead Leaf Echo who, unlike HVG, are pretty clearly a shoegaze band. I shouldn't review them - after all, I quit reviewing shoegaze bands for a lot of reasons. Not the least of these reasons was that my general philosophy of supporting bands and scenes through criticism seemed to be in direct conflict with a prevalent attitude shoegaze circles which sees criticism (even its positive elements) as counterproductive and antithetical to the creation of music. There's validity in both viewpoints and not any chance of coming to a compromise, so I thought it best to bow out. (The other reason I stopped writing about shoegaze is that my own tastes shifted, but I never stopped loving the genre even as I came to love other styles more.)

So, allow me to keep this note very brief. To avoid any confusion, this is a positive review. The last time I reviewed DLE was ages ago and I panned them pretty severely for a lack of songwriting and momentum. But based on the show Thursday, it's a totally different story now. It was never in question that DLE could create beautiful layers of sound, but in their latest songs, they've sculpted those layers into exciting songs full of energy and momentum. It's not a matter of conforming to conventional pop structures, it's just a matter of crafting a musical arc instead of a stagnant pool of sound. And DLE have honed this skill in recent years. Their new material still has moments of sound collage, as it should, but they don't overstay their welcome, and there are moments where the band truly rocks a la kindred neo-psychedelics BRMC and A Place to Bury Strangers.

The band has forgone a live bassist and shockingly, doesn't seem to suffer one bit from the shift to prerecorded b-lines. Frontman Lloyd Galyon is now joined by Ana Breton (formerly of Mahogany) and Christo Buffam (of the Vandelles), both of whom complement Galyon's scintillating 12-string ambiance, Breton with thick, dreamy textures and Buffam with sheets of white noise. The greater contrast in textures actually makes the music more coherent - and more memorable - than ever before. Galyon's obvious talent for soundmaking is finally articulated in these new songs and lives up to its potential at last. Whether that's the new band members, personal evolution as a musician or most likely a combination of the two, DLE are out of a rut and on a roll. Check out their new EP, Verisimilitude, out now.

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