Quiet Loudly Soulgazer

[BNS Sessions; 2009]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: rock, shoegaze, soul, experimental
Others: Neil Young, My Bloody Valentine, Otis Redding

When executives at Decca Records politely informed four moppy Liverpudlians that they would not be offering to them a contract despite the relative strength of a nerve-wracked audition, not much of a second thought was given towards the explanation. That was 1962. Now, however, that explanation – “guitar groups are on the way out” – is laughably quotable, not simply because the following six decades have embossed The Beatles’ fabled stature into the crowded annals of pop culture, but because “guitar groups” were just about the only thing that were in for a good 30 years or so after that statement was issued.

But if Kranky founder Joel Leoschke or even Sub Pop cheese Jonathan Poneman were to dismiss some hopeful signee today or tomorrow for the same reason, it might not seem like such a boneheaded move. That is, one of the most notorious misjudgments in history can really just be chalked up to bad timing. But there’s still a bone to be thrown here. Because now, courtesy of a number of factors, the dominance held by the guitar throughout the second half of the 20th century has undeniably suffered a destabilizing assault: where alternative styles of music were once equivalent to a guerrilla movement in the realm of Western postmodernism, they now constitute a formidable world power.

Technological advances exceeding the limitations of the amplifier and the wah-wah have of course enabled this overturn, but, more significantly, our collective idea as to what is simply acceptable to listen to is continually expanding (let’s just say that the past 15 years have been very, very good to the Pet Shop Boys, if you know what I mean). Hercules and Love Affair cropped up in countless 2008 best-of lists right next to Titus Andronicus. The term “post-rock” was coined so as to classify untraditional rock music (which basically means the absence or unconventional use of the guitar). And this very publication recently quoted a member of Gang Gang Dance, an act besotted with the seemingly inexhaustible possibilities presented by the melding of dance fundamentals with tribal beats, as rejoicing over this progressive shift: “…Rock ‘n’ roll has been happening for so long. It’s really nice to see it go.”

Fortunately for the rest of us, however, the three fellows comprising Quiet Loudly don’t seem aware – or, perhaps more likely, don’t seem to care – that, were it not so catastrophically premature, Decca Records’ prediction might have scored a few more sympathizers. Anthony Aquilino, Sal Garro, and Max Goransson make no apologies for exerting popular music’s flagship lineup, kneading out of the most orthodox hardware some of the freshest music this side of Pavement’s career. Their music enjoys the varnish of a swirling blaze of electric guitar and in this respect recalls the approach taken this year by another band, Dinosaur Jr., in which the guitar takes front and center stage. Quiet Loudly also seems to follow Dinosaur Jr.’s unwritten policy that studio recordings be vitalized with a conviction most artists activate only in the midst of live performances, and both bands maintain a fairly direct course, never solely resorting to esoteric avant-garde horseplay nor lazily toppling into blue-collar jam sessions.

Of course, Dinosaur Jr. started doing all that 20 years ago when nobody was questioning the coolness of it. What makes Soulgazer sound so special is its preservationist quality: we’ve not seen in a long time a debut album owing so much to classic rock actually uphold those values that once infused that subculture. That is, with Quiet Loudly, it really is about the music, man: there’s no tongue-in-cheek indication of throwback for the sake of novelty here (does anybody remember – or even still care about – The Darkness?). And in a just world, this band would be poised to blow up all over your Web browser while toolsheds like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Wavves would still be in their respective bedrooms, poised to eventually realize that nothing is really all that special about The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Wavves.

But to write off Quiet Loudly as a few guys simply capable of combining a number of ingredients in order to produce an equation derived from the school of “The Wind Cries Mary” would be to grossly downplay the sonic ambition that Soulgazer shows and, more importantly, the adeptness with which the band strives for such a sound. This, in fact, is where the similarities between Dinosaur Jr. and Quiet Loudly end: where Farm rollicks, Soulgazer soars. In fact, the band claims via MySpace that they “get blissed out so you can drift out,” and, thankfully, there is no irony in that statement.

Then again, that much should be evident by that nifty little portmanteau serving as the record’s title: christening one’s debut album Soulgazer leaves little room for ambiguity, and the term sufficiently relates the nature of the music contained therein. Fermenting their traditional rock sensibilities with moves gleaned from some of the grander moments of shoegaze, a spellbinding momentum is maintained throughout the entire record. With such thick vibrations, the conception of spaciousness and open air is constantly transmitted: listen to the ascending “We Look Alike,” teeming with the psychedelic meanderings of Goransson’s guitar underscored by the immovable pace of Garro’s drumming, and you’ll risk experiencing genuine feelings of smallness. Even the pensive “I’ve Been a Miner for a Heart of Space,” with its doleful horn accompaniment, broils into a murky, hovering cloud of noise.

That allusion to soul in the record’s title there is equally important, though. Indeed, the band pays tribute with their instruments to the inspiration of its forebears, but Goransson’s vocals, balmy like that of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, extend the boundaries of Quiet Loudly’s orbit. The band lists Otis Redding as an influence, and Goransson’s wailing, improvisatorial delivery adds a depth to songs like “Lift This Mountain” and “Church of Mud” that no simple melody or any amount of hollering could provide. The wafting chorus of stunner “Over the Balcony” illustrates a viable two-way street: the warbled squall of guitars supplies a swampy cushion for the vocals, as the powerful, impassioned voice in turn expands the sound.

Effectuating all of this constant outward energy is a startling maturity often nonexistent at least throughout the infantile stages of new musical acts: a foundational structure is responsible for the lucidity of each song, never anchoring Quiet Loudly’s capacity to stargaze yet keeping those heavy cyclones of sound in check. “I Gave Her the Ocean” pinnacles in an instantly likeable trot. The screwy fretwork of “Good Hearts” – worthy of the eternal blessings of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant – is set wonderfully to Aquilino’s chugging bass. And other moments are enhanced by the band’s willpower to simply allow different elements a spot in the foreground: a shrill organ beautifully accompanies Goransson’s falsetto during the first movement of “Lift This Mountain,” while funky trumpets and saxophones blare throughout “You Never Call.”

Not counting last year’s equally potent Destroy All Monsters demos, Soulgazer is a self-assertive introduction that makes a strong case for the enduring merits of rock and roll with its revivalist essence. And yet the band doesn’t seem terribly concerned with this as a pursuit in itself; again, they’re just preoccupied with making some killer music.

1. Over the Balcony
2. Lift This Mountain
3. We Look Alike
4. Church of Mud
5. Good Hearts
6. You Never Call
7. I Could Sleep for Days
8. I’ve Been a Miner for a Heart of Space
9. I Gave Her the Ocean

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