Popping Open Music
t Dusk’s vaguely disappointing The Summer Of Promises Kept luckily still had enough promise to make the band worth watching. So when Heights popped up in my mailbox I was torn between excitement and trepidation: Would the moments of wince-inducing tweeness be excised or embraced? Would they have more quasi-novelty songs like “I Am The Starman”? Would there be anything as haunting as “The Image”?
The answers are: excised, no and yes (in spades). The group toured between albums and the experience has audibly toughened them up. Everything from their compositional skills to lead singer Cary Clarke’s voice (reminiscent of Ed Robertson from the Barenaked Ladies, but in a good way) have matured and progressed; Heights gets more done in nine songs than the old record did in fourteen.
The first half of the album is more mellow and closer to At Dusk’s past work, consisting of clean-limbed indie rock that, if the classic critical formula was used, would work out roughly to (Mission Of Burma + The Byrds) x Terror Twilight. But the crucial difference in the band’s approach is already obvious; older songs strove so hard to be pretty that they wound up artlessly affected, whereas now the tunes are content to just be good, pretty or not.
Opener “Come Too Far” sounds much more natural, and the better touches of their earlier style (like drummer Will Hattman’s excellent backing vocals) have been retained. It never lapses either lyrically or sonically into the self-conscious quirkiness that hung over At Dusk’s older songs; their lyrical approach still balances a sense of optimism and nostalgia with occasional heavy doses of foreboding, but the disparate elements mesh better now.
But as enjoyable as the first side is, the four songs of the second side are the real highlights. “The Face Is That Of An Angel” is an effectively constrained burst of menace but the other three tracks stretch out past the six minute mark to great effect. “Act Of Violence” and “Tired Eyes” approach the epic through skillful application of some truly great choruses and focused instrumental parts that never lapse into formless jamming.
It’s hard to structure longer songs like this without getting boring, but both succeed; “Act Of Violence” fakes you out with an almost stereotypically At Dusk-sounding guitar intro before abruptly shifting into a heavier and grimmer sound to kick off into the grimmest and clearest relationship song At Dusk have yet penned. The chorus manages to approximate a firestorm with just some extra percussion and strong bass work. It’s not perfect–the twenty second fade out into a false ending needs to be about a fourth as long–but it’s an utterly stunning piece of work and “Tired Eyes” does it one better.
This entire disc is available for download from At Dusk’s website (linked above), but “Tired Eyes” is the one to check out. Reminiscent of Raising The Fawn’s similarly superb The North Sea LP, just when you think the song is done with you it sucks you in again and tosses you around for a while. If I’d first heard the second half of Heights blind I don’t know if I would have tagged it as At Dusk; the vocals (always a strong point) are still distinctive, but the sound has improved by leaps and bounds.
By the time At Dusk cheekily wave goodbye with “Welcome Home” (“we still have not changed the locks”), they’ve proved that “Tired Eyes” was no fluke. Given that one of the most frustrating parts of The Summer Of Promises Kept was its inconsistency, the level of quality control here is impressive. At Dusk have done what every band should do after a spotty record; focused, regrouped and hit the next one clean out of the park.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2004-09-02