tremble clef

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ashby, "Anyone Anywhere" (2005)

Ashby is most often compared to Saint Etienne -- specifically the Saint Etienne of the Good Humor era -- and that was indeed the context in which I first heard of them. Made up of Evelyn Pope and Bill Cowie, who are partners in real life, the duo was discussed quite heavily on the Saint Etienne mailing list around 2001. People kept saying that their music had the same kind of loungey, modern bossa novaish, martini-accompanying feel that Tore Johanson brought out of Saint Etienne by sequestering them in Sweden and feeding them American ice-cream. (Etienne fans weren't at all resentful or non-plussed about Ashby sounding like their heroes. It's interesting how fans react very differently to soundalikes: some welcome it, while others seem threatened and annoyed. Why the variance exists fascinates me, but that's a subject for another blog post.)

Although Ashby are based in Boston, they have almost no American profile. (Although, hell, maybe they have no profile, period.) They are signed to Marina, the German record company that mostly specializes in slightly twee, 60s/70s AOR sounds; The Aluminum Group and The Free Design have put out records through them, for instance. The Boston Phoenix has long championed the group, though, naming the band's debut album the best by a Boston group in 2001.

That seems like faint praise -- I mean, I love Boston, but beating out, I dunno, the Dropkick Murphys or the other bands on the list doesn't seem especially tough to me. But that debut album, Power Ballads, is indeed quite a little gem. Melodically, its twelve songs do sound like their writers spent their lives listening to the Carpenters, Bacharach, and Jobim. "Horizon" is probably my favorite track off the album, and fairly representative: some electronic squiggles, a gentle beat, and a lyric about nothing in particular except a mood, makes the song a snazzy grower.

Early this year the band resurfaced with their second album, Looks Like You've Already Won, which I finally found and picked up in Nottingham. I'm not exactly disappointed by it, but it does feel like a lesser effort than Power Ballads. Most of the electronic textures are gone, while more horns have entered the mix. The latter is a nice development, but without the more modern beats, some of the tension -- between old and new, of course, but also between propulsiveness and melancholy -- that made the first album interesting has disappeared. As a further result, Evelyn's voice also sounds weaker, not having to rise to meet the electronica. The first track on the album, "Anyone Anywhere," is the most immediate: the ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-baaa bit that kicks off the song and recurs throughout is instantly memorable, and won't leave your head despite, or perhaps due to its, sounding vaguely like a million other things. Report card thus says: "Not bad, but could do better. PS: Your album covers are pretty horrible. Buck up in art class!"


Post a Comment

<< Home