by Rob van Alstyne
In their decade long run, the American Analog Set have accomplished many things—they’ve written pristine pop albums (2001’s Know By Heart), made drone-heavy detours into ambient bliss (1997’s From Our Living Room to Yours) and generally done everything EXCEPT rock. The band prefers a softer route to listeners’ ear canals (and hearts): one centered on the magic of lingering vibraphone lines, half-whispered vocals and methodically seductive rhythms. It makes perfect sense that the band’s most recent release before this year’s Set Free was a special limited edition promotional EP sponsored by Tylenol—AmAnSet are all about pain relief. Encapsulating past stabs at both polished pop and more warped hypnotic whimsy, Set Free finds an exquisite middle ground never before reached by the band.
like the way our band sounds so we never try to reinvent the wheel,” admits
front man Andrew Kenny. “With this record I was definitely consciously
looking back a little bit on what we did with Know By Heart and then
Promise of Love. Trying to take what I liked about those two records,
which were pretty different from one another, and sort of make something that
felt like a nod to both of them.”
Close listening backs up Kenny’s claim as Set Free bounces between
frothy, vocal-driven acoustic pleasures (“Born on the Cusp”), wobbly
lightly distorted dirges (“Jr.”) and playful spy movie soundtrack
styled instrumentals (“Theme from ‘Everything Ends’”).
There’s even something—gasp—approaching a rock song on here:
the semi-rollicking guitar lines of “The Green Green Grass” beg
to be blasted at higher decibels than anything that preceded it in AmAnSet’s
catalog. The AmAnSet’s sound—typically sculpted out of understated
bass grooves, a lightly brushed drum kit, airy vibraphone/keyboard led melodies
and gently strummed electric guitar trills, is instantly recognizable to their
cult audience (for AmAnSet novices the closest point of reference would probably
be Death Cab for Cutie on some serious Quaaludes). It’s clearly AmAnSet’s
finest hour in a long career - and one that nearly didn’t happen at all
as the band’s future was cast into doubt when Kenny left their native
Texas and moved to New York City in the fall of 2002 to pursue a doctoral degree
in biochemistry at Columbia University.
“It was one of those situations where there was no right thing to do,”
says Kenny, reflecting back on his decision—he eventually left school
after a year to return his full concentration to the band, though he stills
live in New York and is soon to be married to the woman he met there. “Either
way I had to give up something I wanted to do. Now I know that it really was
a big deal for me to leave. As long as I was in the AmAnSet, I knew that I wanted
things to end a certain way. With this record, it may not be our last record,
but I know it’s the last one we’re going to really tour behind.
I wanted to treat it the right way, to have this feel like an exclamation point
at the end of the sentence.”
the issues inherent in being a geographically separated band, it’s amazing
the American Analog Set managed to make Set Free at all, let alone mount
one final go-round of the country for their fans (it was formally announced
by their publicist a few days after my conversation with Kenny that this would
indeed be AmAnSet’s final widescale tour). Although the separation appears
to have put the band in limbo status following their current tour, Kenny feels
it actually aided the record making process.
“When you have to buy a plane ticket to go to practice—you practice,”
confides Kenny, stifling a chuckle. “You don’t take a break to play
Playstation for a couple of hours. But what was great about recording this time
around was that we actually practiced and worked on the songs and took them
out on tour before sitting down and making the final recordings of them for
the album. It was cool to change up the way we worked. I felt like I was on
a bit of a mission when we were making the record; there was just a lot more
focused effort because we couldn’t take each other’s company for
Although it remains to be seen what Kenny’s musical future holds after
this final hurrah on the road with the American Analog Set it’s clear
from our discussion that he’s a man who’s grown comfortably into
the role of bandleader and musician.
“At the end of the day the reason I feel so willing to talk about this
record is that I feel it’s the best thing we’ve done and I’m
really proud of it,” says Kenny. “I’m in one of my favorite
bands right now and that’s OK for me to say—I used to have a lot
of issues about doing what I do. I’m still a humble person. I recognize
we’re not a necessary band in any way. We don’t make important music
or something politically vital. But we do what we do well and some people enjoy
it. As someone who really grew up within the culture of music, I feel honored
to participate within that culture, just to be able to do things like put out
records and play shows—not everyone gets to do that with their music.
As long as I’m still buying records and involved with that culture of
music I’ll probably be making them—I love being a part of it.”
The American Analog Set play on Sat., Oct. 22 at the Varsity Theater with
Chin Up Chin Up. 9 p.m. 18+ $10. 1308 4th St. S.E., Mpls. 612-604-0222.
For further information on the American Analog Set check
out their official website at AmAnSet.com.
Head on over to www.pulstec.com to download an MP3 of
the American Analog Set’s song “Immaculate Heart.”