While it may be easier to apply a one-dimensional lyrical icing to minor key balladry, a more perilous ledge to lean over is the one where the songwriter asks, “What or who has hurt me terribly, and how do I really feel about this?” At the center of Athens’ Summer Hymns is performer/arranger/producer Zachary Gresham baring his Georgian soul on Clemency, the band’s third full-length.
Throughout the band’s three-year existence, Summer Hymns has undergone multiple member changes and has explored a diverse instrumental makeup. As to keep within the Athens tradition of an ever-changing lineup, Gresham’s outfit has involved local popsters from Of Montreal, Masters of the Universe, Joe Christmas and Elf Power. These folks have filled organ, violin, sax and flute positions, among others, in the Hymns’ eclectic compositions. These aspects have complemented the Hymns well on their foray into psychedelia, but Clemency is hardly the acid-soaked mayhem that came from the Olivia Tremor Control; nay, this is a horse of a different, countrified color.
Pedal steel guitar and twangy Buffalo Springfield-esque licks enter after about a minute or so of the lazy “Anywhere,” an obvious nod to Gresham’s main man Shakey. His fondness for Neil Young’s catalog is evident naturally on the surface of Clemency, but perhaps in his emotional outpours as well.
Summer Hymns has been revered for their inclusion of said eclectic array of instruments, but Clemency‘s strong suit is Gresham’s ability to shamelessly speak of his inner demons in a manner most simplistic and plain. He asks in “Eye’s,” a basic but bitter cough syrup sweetened by simple lyrical maneuvers, “How do I know to believe my own eyes, when my mind only sees what it wants me to see?” This doubt falls smack in the middle of an echo-laced meditation as he chants nearly the same mantra over and over again. It’s Clemency‘s most psychedelic moment — a blatant throwback to 1968, but also easy and honest. He says a lot by making little changes to the piece’s main idea.
Gresham’s honesty couldn’t be better-timed than it is in “Pete Rose Affinity,” though, as he admits details of a boyhood prank he pulled to get the baseball legend’s autograph. Unlike Rose, the odds worked for Gresham and the mid-song rambling makes for a swell tale.
For the most part, Clemency‘s folk and country tracks are slow and melancholy. Gresham’s vocal wavers in and out of the song’s central melody and he sounds as if he’s questioning most of the time. This occasionally gets tedious because of a sameness that results in his songs. Fortunately, the album’s strong but easy-to-swallow lyrical content keeps the band’s third full-length grounded in place. Summer Hymns deliver lush country arrangements but adversely retain a “deserted saloon” feel on Clemency in its slow and often minor key lyrical inquiries.