I wonder what goes on in Richard Youngs’s mind when he decides to record an album. He’s known for being unpredictable from album to album, often adopting strange instrumentation, droning sounds, layered vocals, simple acoustic sets. Compare 2002’s May, a stripped-down, guitar-and-vocals affair, to 2005’s captivating The Naive Shaman, with deep synths, tribal drums, and Irish/folk melodies. But all eight of his albums still pretty much sound the same: Each song and each vocal track has a single melodic line that plays on and on, repeating the same two verses, two lines, or two words until Youngs or whatever mystical force that drives him decides he’s done, which is usually after seven minutes. The albums are separated only by their respective gimmicks. Occasionally the gimmicks work, and occasionally they sound just like gimmicks.
Autumn Response is no different. It combines The Naive Shamans’ experiments in vocal distortion and reproduction with the “man and guitar” motif of May to produce an album more monotonous and tiring than interesting. Here, the gimmicks don’t work.
The songs on Autumn Response are some of the shortest he’s composed, but too often they don’t feel nearly as short as their running times. The length of the tracks merely becomes another gimmick. Even the one-and-a-half-minute “No Edge” has been exhausted by the end of the first verse, which happens to be the same as the second. I suppose the lyrics are meant to be banal — “Been waiting for something to say/ Been waiting till the edge goes away” — but Youngs’s delivery isn’t compelling enough to make me buy into his feint.
The double-tracked vocals aren’t affecting, either, because the echoing voice generally doesn’t add a new dimension to the lines, instead simply repeating to a slightly varying rhythm the same tone of the first voice. The guitar melodies are as minimal folk as you can get — usually one chord slowly picked continuously — which is the main reason Youngs’s vocal melodies stay hooked on just one or two notes, never changing in their repetition. The double guitar tracking often feels more like an attempt to make up for the lack of strong song composition than like a successful sound experiment.
Through all the tedium, some moments — usually little, quick, unexpected moments — make persevering worthwhile. The voices on “Before We Were Here” combine dissonantly, yet the randomness and clashing of the parts eventually brings out the beautifully subdued line, “Of creation in everything.” “One Hundred Stranded Horses” has Autumn Response‘s most interesting melody, which hearkens back to Gaelic and Old English folk songs, even though the repetition spoils it in the end. The sixteen-minute closer, “Something Like Air,” is the only track that features two harmonically distinct vocal lines — the first in a higher range, the second, lower — and it gains infinitely for the variety, although not enough really to justify its length.
At the very least, Richard Youngs is a distinct voice in indie rock. But the most disappointing thing about Autumn Response is the feeling that he could do so much more with his work.