Reissue Of The Week: The American Analog Set’s New Drifters

John Doran relishes a Numero box set compiling the early output of supremely relaxed & hypnotic Texans AmAnSet. Home page portrait courtesy of Andrew Kenny

I refuse to make any predictions on this score given the way things are going but I remain, at the time of writing, a lifelong pacifist now a couple of years into my sixth decade. And nothing, nothing – I’m including disagreements with soldiers outside nightclubs in Hull, strident incivility in back alleys in Prescot, brutal pandemonium in Popeyes, Manchester – has brought me closer to the actual dispensation of violence in those years than watching The American Analog Set play live. In fact such was the likelihood that I would end up gripping some yammering London chatterbox by the lapels, some shrieking Sunday drinker unable to internalise the monologue, to have a (quiet) word, ‘So help me god I’m willing to radically alter the trajectory of my life here if you don’t pipe down’ – that I had to ban myself from watching them live. Which was a shame because, well, what a band.

AmAnSet were arguably not suited to the ‘impress me’ live music ecology of London at the turn of the century, given that they wove gossamer filigrees of organ, chiming guitar, brushed drums and near whispered vocals, to slowly layer into a fuller picture; the sense of what they were doing only appearing with the application of time, concentration and, yes, silence. Their quietude on stage, sometimes meant that punters didn’t even register they were playing to the extent they could quip, ‘Has it started yet?’And, in my experience at least, they seemed to be radically engaged with only playing at conversation level, and if people missed it, well, that was their lookout. They played as though they were practising in a suburban garage on a Sunday morning being very mindful of both the neighbours and family members having a lie-in. They also played as if they’d never sought any kind of advice from tour hardened rock musicians, industry veterans or sound engineers of any description, electing to simply make up a chill set of rules for themselves. And these impressions, it turns out, on reading the information that comes with this lush new Numero box set of AmAnSet’s first three albums, b-sides, outtakes and demos, are possibly not so far from the truth.

The American Analog Set was initially a bunch of friends on a break from studies, coming together in Fort Worth, Texas, during the summer of 1995, setting up a studio cum rehearsal space in main songwriter Andrew Kenny’s grandparents’ house with some instruments and an old Otari MX-5050 8-track reel-to-reel . The name, coined while they watched a baseball game, simply reflected a love for the sound of tape and valve amps; not quite the fetishisable thing back then that it has since become. Led by the linear, limiting, destructive process of recording to tape that made mistakes costly, they moved ever so slowly out of self-imposed necessity. Eventually eight recordings were released as their debut The Fun Of Watching Fireworks in 1996 on the Emperor Jones label. They would, inevitably, go on to draw comparisons with Stereolab and Broadcast, but at the outset they lacked the simmering intensity of the former and the psychedelic oddness of the latter to make this comparison ring true; AmAnSet’s first LP was just too relaxed and North American (the clue is there in the name) to be considered European in sound. Admittedly there is something ever so skeletally motorik here but this music in its hypnotic freeway pulse – the literal sound of driving across America, rather than the idea conceptualised from afar in Germany – has the organ enhanced groove of Velvet Underground’s Live In 1969 hitting a sedate crawl after getting stuck in a tailback behind Low and Codeine.

‘Set’, in this context, refers to a collection of musicians, but also suggests liquid becoming solid; which is exactly what is happening on The Fun Of Watching Fireworks, feet being found in real time. But ‘set’ also means to fix a root key note or pitch to a song, this being the gently oscillating drone that underlies all of AmAnSet’s music, something that remained constant despite a clear evolutionary step being taken during the recording of their second album, released the following year; Lisa Roschmann’s Farfisa organ and Kenny’s obliging way with an easy melody, the main through line from the debut to From Our Living Room To Yours. If the driving music of the debut was hard to place geographically (in the States at least), this was a more countrified, edge of the desert affair at least: an album configured under calm open skies and over early morning heat haze crowning dusty asphalt. Still, they were hard to place precisely. Shoegaze, indie and post rock adjacent they may have been but their sonic GPS revealed they had little in common with fellow boundary disrespecting rockers from Texas, Butthole Surfers, Lift To Experience, The Jesus Lizard and At The Drive-In. Admittedly, some Stereolab-esque lounge elements were creeping in on tracks like ‘White House’, but much better indeed were the poppy-head infusions of (weirdly heavy) ‘Blue Chaise’ and ‘Using The Hope Diamond As A Doorstop’. And then in 1999 The Golden Band both distilled the essence of what AmAnSet were – exquisitely hypnotic pop music informed by the final, liminal vapour trails decorating the atmosphere after a psilocybin experience – and gently pushed their sound outwards by barely perceptible margins, mainly by the means of vibraphone.

‘Set’ also means for the orbit of a celestial body to make it appear if it is disappearing under the horizon, when of course this vanishing trick is simply a matter of perspective. By the end of the 90s, Roschmann had left the line up and a slightly ‘beefed-up’ sounding AmAnSet were getting ready to release some of their strongest, most emotionally affecting material to date, particularly on 2003’s brilliant but by now out of step Promise Of Love; however arguably something – A purity of tone? A sense of optimism? A DIY charm? Frequencies that create their own hush? – had also been slightly obscured along the way.

New Drifters is out today via Numero

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