Turin Brakes' 2001 full-length debut, The Optimist LP was nominated for the British Mercury Music Prize -- an award based on artistic merit rather than sales -- but that just wasn't enough for Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian, the pair behind the Brakes. The Optimist LP could be considered a part of the "New Acoustic" movement, which has gained favor with media-giant Clear Channel and is currently being force-fed to the greedy masses. While I have a sneaking suspicion that John Mayer's next album will sound eerily reminiscent of his latest, Turin Brakes took a risk in leaving the bankable sound of the New Acoustic movement behind, and that gamble pays off big on Ether Song.
Now, that doesn't mean they set their acoustic guitars on fire and listened to Joe Satriani for a year. Ether Song is flooded with acoustic guitars; where The Optimist LP was largely a two-quiet-guys-with-acoustics affair, here, Knights and Paridjanian let the experimentation rip. "The Blue Hour" begins the album with a soft electronic beat; "Long Distance" is anchored by reverberating pianos; the sound of muffled slot machines spinning their reels underlays the delicate "Rain City." The creepy "Panic Attack" sounds like Hunky Dory-era David Bowie, and the spastic, bluesy electric guitar of "Little Brother" recalls late model Jimi Hendrix. This is what it sounds like when a band successfully evolves.
"Stone Thrown" might just be the most perfect song that I've yet heard in 2003. From the twangy guitars to the beautiful piano, this is Neil Young at his peak. Knights' bitter yet beautiful vocals are on full display on this track. Yes, it's just a song about a girl, and yes, I think I've heard one or two of these before, but listening to this song makes you feel like you've been socked in the gut. "I'm the stone you've just thrown into the ocean / How many stones have you thrown?" Oof.
The subject matter on their second LP is darker, if well tread. The topics are nothing revolutionary -- no less than three, maybe even four, songs discuss the pressures of their newfound fame -- but the execution is superb. While the lyrics of The Optimist LP strained to be poetic, Ether Song serves as the duo's realization that simple words and sentences can be just as poignant as obscure, wordy ones. (Think Drunk Hemingway vs. Drunk Fitzgerald -- economy is good.) Knights performs his inner peace ritual on "Self Help": "Breathe in good, breathe out badTell yourself it will be okay, remind yourself that you're not just in it for the money." Paridjanian provides a rare vocal performance on the wistful "Full of Stars," mourning the loss of a loved one, while Knights' wailing on "Little Brother" laments a suicide with no hope in sight.
Ether Song may have a few minor faults, but it is a sizeable leap forward from an already excellent debut. The duo has clearly progressed without sacrificing their sound, as great musicians always manage to do. This may or may not be the album they have the potential to make, but either way, they'd better start getting used to fame and fortune.
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