Aislers Set – How I Learned to Write Backwards

Aislers Set
How I Learned to Write Backwards

“Everyone in rock just rips off everyone else,” said my professor dryly after I posed what I thought was a particularly prescient question linking the history of various American musical forms together under the auspices of a History of Rock and Roll class. As much as disappointment still stirs within the normally idealistic confines of my thinking when I recall his rather thoughtlessly reductionistic answer, the more experience I’ve had with the form, the more I see he is right. The overwhelming majority of rock bands that have strewn their garbage across the history of popular music have left deposits that look amazingly similar, leaving the innovators of particular forms to exist as the golden standards while the disingenuous leave their work to slowly fade out of the memories of everyone who realized they had better ways to spend their time. The true test of artistry is moving past simply “ripping off” those influences and recombining what you’ve learned into such an idiosyncratic package that it becomes distinctively yours. With How I Learned to Write Backwards, the Aislers Set come very close to doing so.

Moving past the most obvious of their 1960s influences, Amy Linton leads her band into bold new territory, mixing those very influences into a nearly unrecognizable pastiche of hypnotically pop-centric songwriting. Always a band that could have qualified for Elephant 6 membership if they were only just a bit more aggressively psychedelic or conceptual, here the quintet achieve both without bowing to esoteric noodling for the sake of experimentation. Opening with twinkling toy sounds and understated guitars of “Catherine Says,” Linton emotionlessly coos “I gave my life and love to Jesus” as if the newest brainwashed recruit to a cult, starting the album off on a decidedly surreal note. And Linton is amazingly adept at issuing non-sequiturs, nearly as skillful as she is as a melodicist, her words flowing by so quickly and prettily that little notice is paid to lines like, “I’ve been in the narrow’s lashes, velvet red and real as rashes” or “I’d dance and sing till I fell legless everyday and punish every cell with rapture then its rape.” Rhymes are too simple; the words are rambling but strangely evocative, running out of meter but creating moods and amazingly complete scenes out of their vaguely suggestive flow. Still, that she can be clever yet never self-congratulatory is one of her strengths, as she can weave together imagery and philosophical vagaries that would fall flat for more self-serious artists.

Where the Aislers Set really create a distinction between themselves and their contemporaries is through the unpredictably imaginative arrangements, bolstered by Linton’s truly enigmatic melodic sense. For instance, the handclaps and a cappella rejoinders of “Emotional Levy” create a truly eerie stillness, stopping the momentum of the set for a sobering moment of self-realization, just as the frantic twee-punk riffs that follow in “Languor in the Balcony” stomp you out of the dazed stupor into which the pervious track lured you. The balance of apparent naïve sentimentality in the melodies is undercut by the presence of decidedly ominous tunefulness in the twisting “Mission Bells.” The use of heavy reverb can lend a monkish quality to some of the tracks, casting back to the Gregorian influences that popped up on a few of the Yardbird’s least blues-influenced releases. Other tracks, such as the boogieing piano and cascading trumpets of “Attraction Action Reaction,” channel that aesthetic into an almost Wall-of-Sound sensibility, wrapping Linton’s impossibly perfect melodic complexity in the most suitable sonic packaging that could be imagined.

So rock bands do rip each other off. And the Aislers Set is no exception to this truism; they play a form of endlessly reverberating, melodically advanced music whose parentage can be clearly traced to the various shades of mod, twee, and dream pop that continue to buzz around the indie-rock underground and bubble up into innocuously pleasant but inessential music. Still, while they share these superficial similarities with legions of bands drawing from the same incestuous influences, they are exceptional just by the sheer oddness of Amy Linton’s lyrical vision and her willingness to add a few more kinks in her arrangements to further abstract them from the ones that must have ingrained themselves in her head over years of music listening. Wide-ranging and gloriously pure in the sheer white innocence of the reverberating mix, the songs have the strong melodic underpinning holding them all together. Somehow, she seems to be the rare type of songwriter who can inhale every stitch of melody and mood to come out of a generation of music yet still regurgitate them into new and dazzling patterns. If only all rip offs with this good.