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Friday, February 1, 2013

Album Review: Air Review - Low Wishes

Album Rating: A
At first, I couldn't help but wonder at the title of indie rock band Air Review's latest album (well, first in three years following a one-year period of "hibernation," whatever that's supposed to mean), Low Wishes: by definition, wishes are wild, idealistic, wispy things, so calling them low would be a robbery of everything that makes them wishes. The phrase itself feels a bit odd rolling off my tongue too, like an attempt at describing the shape of air. Yet that opaque quality (which is frankly infuriating to deal with as the guy trying to convey all of this in words) is also what imbues this spirited release with its emotional resonance--heavily tied to the album's central theme of growing up--and its uplifting nature. It's an admirable demonstration from a band taking its first steps into adulthood right along with its listeners.

At times, Air Review's songs resemble clouds rather than compositions: sinking into Low Wishes' lush vocals and blooming instruments is effortless, but any stab at grabbing onto those sonic checkpoints will yield little in the way of analysis. The forces at the center of the album are grounded not in calculation but rather in mood, as each song feels remarkably immersive (and even more importantly, intuitive). The band also writes masterful lyrics, words bordering on poetry in their beauty. If nothing else, Low Wishes is a remarkably emotional experience throughout, one anybody can latch onto on first listen.

That's not to take away from how well-crafted the experience is, however. Though the band mostly stays the same course throughout the release, the pacing and arrangement of the songwriting is absolutely impeccable. In just under three minutes, opener "Rebel" lays out the various motifs explored in Low Wishes: the struggle to keep your faith in things as you grow older, the power of emotion (namely, love) to consume or define you, and the ways in which your past colors your present and future. Meanwhile, wispy guitars and synths slowly build alongside percussion to a soaring crescendo complementing the thoughts laid out in the lyrics. Even when the band displays its poppier side, the emotional material remains rich: the whistled hook at the center of "Young" tempts comparisons to indie-pop stars Foster The People early on, but what's around it strikes a poignant emotional chord that's anything but gimmicky. Though the conclusion of the song suggests an unresolved conflict between youth and adulthood, it also suggests hope to come as the wordless vocal melodies over the end of the track rise like campfires, ones that, in the words of vocalist Douglas Hale, "we can build and watch grow."

By "America's Son," an interesting sonic battle begins to develop. Air Review straddles a line between the genre-hopping of more recent indie innovators and the laid-back, folksy strains of its ancestors. Nowhere is that balancing act more apparent than in this slice of sonic alchemy, its foundation a downtempo beat and piano line that sound vaguely like a sample but its melody carried by a guitar loaded with country twang (later by a pan flute in the bridge). The band's resolution isn't to compromise either half of its sound but to integrate its more eclectic impulses into rock-solid song structures. Ironically, the lyrics seem to reflect this entire story with one painfully direct line: "Would I be the man I was called to be?"

Once the band has established itself with the first three tracks, it's free to really let loose, and from the stirring ode "H" all the way to closer "Animal," the remainder of Low Wishes feels completely effortless. It reaches a peak with midsection cut "Waiting Lessons," which may be the best song here, a perfect intersection of everything Air Review stands for. Sonically, it melts sing-along folk refrains (this band loves its gang vocals) into an irresistibly gorgeous indie-pop soundscape loaded with triumphant brass, throbbing tom-tom rhythms and poignant bells. Thematically, it's a distillation of that hazy space between your concrete now and your vivid, ambitious later, when you have the time to dream of trips to mountainsides and oceansides because you still have a home to return to. And as terrifying as outside turns out to be, you can be brave. You have to. We all have to.

Title track "Low Wishes" has a large order to fill following arguably the best song of 2013 thus far, but it comes close. Hale shines here, delivering the chorus line, "I've got low wishes, but I've got high hopes!" absolutely perfectly, as the front half of that sentiment is laced with uncertainty and confusion while the back half soars a full octave into satisfaction and optimism. Some would call his attitude a lowering of expectations, but I'd call it a discovery of humility, and the sheer thundering power of the instrumentation suggests the flip side of that discovery is epiphany.

As "My Automatic" launches the final third of Low Wishes, it delves into the directionless angst of youth and finds a gritty reserve of anger, outright shocking coming from such a mellow band. That said, even fury sounds joyful here; the unruly blasts of electric guitar and brass are tempered with the resolute croon of Douglas Hale. (Since it bears mentioning, Justin Robinson's drumming is spot-on throughout this album, and his bombastic interpretation of the melodies' grooves is the driving force of the song.) After "Fin," a brief atmospheric interlude loaded with pathos, finale "Animal" provides a resolution of sorts, looking on the space traveled thus far with a bit of distance: "I've been here before, I won't give you anymore." The last lines, surprisingly, end this journey on a note that's mighty ambiguous: "We're unoriginal," declares the band--or is it saying, "We're an original?" As tumultuous as growing up is in the moment, it's an experience we all go through, so how original can any of us really be?

I'm reminded, suddenly, of the closing lines of Cloud Atlas, a book I coincidentally finished off yesterday (I'll get it back to you on Monday, Dahyun!) but fits strangely well with my experience with Low Wishes. The novel weaves the stories of six seemingly unrelated people in six time periods ranging from the Pacific of the 1800s to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii...yet it ends where it began, with 19th century evangelist-turned-social reformer Adam Ewing contemplating the nature of change. He ponders what his father-in-law will say to discredit his naive ambitions: "...only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand , your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!"

"Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?" he retorts in his writings.

Though Air Review doesn't exactly answer that answerless question, what Low Wishes amounts to is so much more. To sum this sloppy mess of a review up, it's a celebration at its core: a celebration of what you see when you leave your house and enter a world so much bigger. A celebration of feeling lonely, powerless and unimportant--because believe it or not, everybody who matters felt lonely, powerless and unimportant once. A celebration of leaving your childhood behind without shedding it, wielding your foolish hope into a weapon with which you will shape the world. The gang vocals echoing over almost every track may be replete with sorrow, but they find camaraderie in how human it is to admit to, well, how human you are. They swell and burst, the music ends in a glorious haze, and we find the strength to move on.

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1. Rebel
2. Young
3. America's Son
4. H
5. Waiting Lessons
6. Low Wishes
7. My Automatic
8. Fin
9. Animal

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