Portland’s AU is a study in juxtaposition. Over the course of two LPs, songwriter Luke Wyland and percussionist Dana Valatka have earned more than their fair share of Animal Collective comparisons by churning out genuinely freakish experimental folk music, but there’s also a preoccupation with Terry Riley-inspired minimalism that counteracts the group’s most jarring aberrations with undulating ambience. And, while AU’s achieved a respectable level of indie notoriety thanks to nods from the likes of Stereogum and Pitchfork, I can’t fathom why this band hasn’t yet attained the sort of ubiquity that Portlandia seems to be enjoying right now. Both have their origins and identities embedded within the City of Roses, but Portlandia’s idiosyncrasies come off as merely charming, where AU’s tend to be confounding.
The group’s latest record isn’t going to settle any scores, but that isn’t really the point. For my dollar, there’s no other act out there right now that can so dexterously fuse such disparate stratums of Western music. It’s beguiling, really, to take in an AU album, and Both Lights goes a step further in cementing their reputation as one of the Pacific Northwest’s best kept secrets.
If there’s a common link between Both Lights and previous AU efforts like Versions and Verbs, it’s in how Wyland and Valatka inject every rhythm they play with a sense of propulsion. Even the gentle ebb and flow of a track like “M. Sea” generates startling levels of movement, despite being occupied by little more than sparkling keyboard and piano textures. Indeed, listening to the rhythmic intensity of this album is akin to the first time you took in a gorgeous sunrise or experienced the panoramic beauty of an unspoiled coastline – it’s fresh, invigorating, energizing.
Naturally, technical prowess has a lot to do with this metric momentum, and the opening seconds of “Epic” are testimony to these chops, as Wyland launches into some AC/DC fretboard pyrotechnics while Valatka bashes away at his kit with formidable speed. True to its name, the song evokes sentiments of grandeur and gravity – unrelenting as guitars, keyboards, percussion, and Colin Stetson’s saxophones coalesce in dizzying fashion.
“Get Alive” is the first tune that gives us a taste of Wyland’s Simple Minds meets Tears for Fears vocals, singing in a robust baritone while jittery polyrhythms dart to and fro. Tones of wonderment and transcendence are nothing new for these guys, but here they come through with a new sense of aplomb. The lyrics are often indecipherable, but with such assured orchestration, just about any storyline would still come off as deeply affecting. In truth, most of the press leading up to the album’s release indicates a number of esoteric concepts fueled the album’s genesis: “a child of collaboration and isolation,” “finding oneself,” and “the glowing spectrum of carnival lights” are all mentioned. Take your pick, really. If you remove all of those peeling guitars and frenzied rhythms, what remains is the same basic notion that has fueled the creative spirit for centuries. SFO conductor Michael Tilson Thomas might’ve said it best in his Keeping Score series – “This is how life feels.”
In the case of AU, life is marked by contrasting episodes of chaos and calm. “Why I Must” is an irresistible barroom fracas with honky tonk piano and lively catcalls, while “Old Friend” sounds like a tender piano elegy in the style of St. Vincent. “Solid Gold” is a spastic and giddy song in the style of Dan Deacon that practically commands its audience to dance, particularly when Stetson unleashes another calculated saxophone solo. By contrast, “Go Slow” suggests similar halcyon settings as Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters.”
Anyone worth their copy of 21 knows that recondite music stands no chance against that which flaunts its burnished melodies and propitiating choruses – indeed, it’s hard not to be charmed by pop music’s dog and pony show. Compared to today’s chart toppers, AU might as well be Merzbow, but – and here comes that rock crit cliché – this album rewards repeated listens, ultimately proving that the fringe is a shockingly comfy place to take solace.