A Sunny Day in Glasgow seemingly came out of nowhere a few years back with a delightfully klangy and blissed-out EP, The Sunniest Day Ever, an even klangier and more blissed-out full-length, Scribble Mural Comic Journal, and a loosely gorgeous and lengthy tour EP, Tout New Age. All of this music was both arty and accessible in the best ways, basically by sounding unique on one hand but instantly pleasurable on the other. Yet, as they release their sophomore full-length album, Ashes Grammar, the band is still flying pretty far under the radar. That’s a shame, because they make great dream pop music which never checks the dream or the pop at the door for too long, making their indulgences the listener’s adventures. Ashes Grammar takes what they accomplished on SMCJ and attenuates it, stretching it into new shapes and sizes, avoiding a retread of their debut album by avoiding the traditions of the album form altogether.
At 22 tracks and over an hour long, there’s a lot to get tangled up in if you’re looking for a product subdivided into discrete, intelligible parts. And let’s be honest, why wouldn’t you be expecting that? But the first proper song comes at track four after a few minutes worth of gauzy vocalizations and instrumental bubbling that feels a bit like the greeting music for a worship service or wedding. Looking at it that way, it’s fitting, as “Failure” announces itself as the main event with some twinkling synths leading to some bouncy and bombastic music, the angelic female voice, distorted drums, and klangy guitar all jumping out into relief, and it feels like old times again. Just when it feels like this track might pummel you for 4 or 5 straight minutes, it changes to a second half Arthur Russell would approve of, with a crystalline piano melody, clear guitar, sunny synths, and soft male vocals bringing the song to a thoughtful and surprising conclusion. Sonically, this album is less guitar-driven and much more spacious. The change of vocal duties from his twin sisters to Annie Fredrickson and only one of his sisters is imperceptible, and the detached feminine vocals still overlap in robotic cascades and sleepwalking declarations.
The rest of the album plays out in similar fashion to the first four tracks, alternating between atmospheric interludes and more gripping and crafty sonic territory, and results in a long player which can feel a bit slippery and samey, even interminable. Ben Daniels, the driving force behind ASDIG, has become better at shifting gears, slowing songs down for sweetly pensive breaks, or simply taking right turns which go in a different direction without seeming completely unrelated. On initial listens, it can be really difficult to know when one songs ends and the next begins without watching the display interface of your listening device for track changes. But whose problem is that?
There’s something to be said for the brave move to structure the album in such a fashion. It took me many listens to get a grip on it, as I attempted to carve it up into pieces I considered either proper songs or interludes, imposing a bit of the order I’ve come to rely on as a starting point for understanding popular music. Now that I can separate the pieces and focus my attention in a fashion I’m more accustomed to, it is an open question as to whether I prefer it as the long form, dream-logic piece it seems intended to be, or whether it’s better viewed as a bunch of proper songs stitched together with inconsequential interludes.
In the end, this preference likely matters not. Just the fact that it’s accomplished this duality makes it an achievement in its own right. It enters the realm of multi-purposefulness: Throw it on when you want some pleasant, multi-textured driftiness, or throw it on when you want to feel some charming tracks emerge from and then fall back into the ether. Why is it so important to make beginning and ending distinctions as a listener? Ashes Grammar can’t answer that question, but that it has provoked the question in such an enjoyable and engrossing manner is cause for celebration.