Now It’s Overhead
Dark Light Daybreak
t first glance, Now It’s Overhead frontman Andy LeMaster’s Southern roots seem incongruous with his lifestyle and musical vision. A successful recording artist, lifelong vegan, and proponent of organic living, LeMaster seems the sort you’d find in a liberal urban center like L.A., New York, or San Francisco. That LeMaster hails from Athens, Georgia doesn’t so much clear up the incongruity as subsume it under the greater paradox of the Southern rock oasis. While the success of the Athens-based B-52s and R.E.M. in the 80s and the likes of the Elephant Six collective and Matthew Sweet in the 90s has undoubtedly created a halo effect, Athens’ spontaneous combustion into a cultural center still puzzles. Why, you ask, can’t this happen to a Spokane, Washington or a Muncie, Indiana? And now that the Elephant Six has officially called it quits, how are talents such as LeMaster still emerging from the sleepy city?
Whatever the case, Now It’s Overhead’s location in unlikely Athens has certainly played a part in their emergence as a Saddle Creek power, though that honor (and the almost-assured success of their new Dark Light Daybreak) wouldn’t have come without the nascent brilliance of their first two albums. After hearing the group’s self-titled debut, Michael Stipe asked them to tour with R.E.M., and while it seems likely that Stipe only originally heard them because of their Athens connection, his positive appraisal of the album was on-point. On Now It’s Overhead and 2004’s Fall Back Open (on which Stipe and Conor Oberst contributed backing vocals), LeMaster led a fecund, intensely-layered attack of dream-pop guitars and backing coos with his nasal wandering, quaking in and out of coherence—ultimately finding inventive and affecting hooks song after song.
On Dark Light Daybreak, the group seems to have settled into their sound, but still sees fit to experiment. At first listen, the instrumentation doesn’t sound too different: besides the addition of Summerbirds in the Cellar’s Brad Register and Curtis Brown, there isn’t too much playing around with the jangly mix of My Bloody Valentine, the Cure, and R.E.M. found on Fall Back Open. LeMaster, though, has carried his songwriting quirks to an unsettling extreme as there’s a palpable shift from the dramatic resolution of previous work.
Instead, LeMaster develops a consistent pattern of serialism and cyclism in the songs: whereas every passage reaches upward, LeMaster’s voice aches towards a return to a center. On “Estranged,” LeMaster’s vocals are doing one thing and the guitars are doing something else, but the tension is never released. In the end, the pop-craving listener is disappointed, led down the garden path of unresolving melody like an adult version of Lamb Chop’s “The Song That Never Ends.” It’s a natural inclination for LeMaster to experiment, but it makes the songs often difficult and unengaging, giving off the impression that they’re half-formed.
Knowing Now It’s Overhead’s sometimes difficult output, it’s not hard to take these criticisms as reasons for its brilliance. LeMaster has been prone to descend into his own little melodic world: that’s partly what makes the first two recordings so rewarding, and it’s on the best parts of this album like “Believe What They Decide” and “Let Up.” But it seems here that by adopting a more linear songwriting approach, LeMaster has actually obscured the positive aspects of his group rather than isolating and displaying them. It’s the kind of paradox that perhaps only an Athens boy could appreciate.