mateurs, a Californian foursome of soundscaping indie rockers, have the tools to both impress and confuse with their self-released debut, which boasts the loveliest CD inlay and Web site design I’ve seen in awhile. This turns out to be a fine, if shallow, introduction to the band: on the cover, an array of colors stream infinitely in and out of a telephone, and each color could be one of the dozens of moods, niches, and influences this band evokes. In spite, or because, of the number of cues and atmospheric stimuli, the album is a pleasant surprise, expertly produced (by David Trumfio, who has worked with Wilco and Grandaddy), adventurous, immediately affecting, and unpredictable.
Culling from the guitar-based heft of ‘70s rock, the band makes beastly yet sensible noise on “Six Days,” and while the chorus gets a bit whiny and dull, dependent on but a few guitar strokes, there is a weight and clarity to the sound—here the instruments are driving the message, all but the guitars pushed to the background. The melody plods and repeats, drowned in static and heat, yet it never really toils or wears down one’s patience. Violinist Shannon de Jong is an important addition to the trio of guitar, bass, and drums, bringing a Fairport touch to the sunny, yet thick-set atmosphere of “Maple.”
What this kinder string instrument does is melt the metal rigidity of the others, and together they give this album its strength, sketching such a deep aural contrast. On the cheesy yet engrossing “Baby” the guitar vies for a piece of the violin’s delicate touch, and a happy trio of female-male vocals introduces an entirely different sound to the mix, one that is right at home with the nailed indie sound of the Shaky Hands and Sufjan Stevens. It’s a mood that’s happy, light, yet robust, and foreshadows some of the scintillating experiments on the album’s second half.
Instrumental “Cigarettes” is just such an experiment—a gorgeous landscape of mesmerizing violin rounds, soft shakers, and little else. The repetitive melody, a simple descending legato pattern, never tires because it loops and echoes into itself, climbing elegantly to several climaxes. “Spectacular Fall” attempts something similar, with long, drawn out, high-register notes from the violin, tinselly guitar arpeggios, and fierce drum work. It doesn’t quite work until the rhythmic section relaxes in the second half, letting go the tireless syncopation and element of trying-too-hard. At 2:30 the drum rhythm changes to a more fluid, forward-moving, perhaps typical pulse, the guitars strum languorously, and the violin keeps the spotlight.
One of the most impressive tracks on the album, “Shadowbox,” retains this formula but works down into a minor key, adding bass pulses, inventive drum bit-parts, and an aching melody strung along by a Blonde Redhead-tinged, feathery, echoic duet and simple mimicking responses from the violin. The guitars take a back seat to the powerful atmosphere of the voices—foreign, mystical, deeply moving. Similarly, Explosions in the Sky throwback “Submariners” is a spacious tapestry of a guitar’s subtle scale climbs and a violin’s delicate lacquer. This engrossing track may completely rip of EITS’s sound, but the violin changes the picture entirely. With subtle choices and seamless instrumental teamwork Amateurs have put their stamp on everything they do, no matter how steeped in the past.