The fact that this CD popped up in my mailbox was a happy coincidence. I read a review of this Portland trio’s earlier self-released EP on another website, and was prompted to check out their IUMA site. Once there, I downloaded “I Am the Starman” and “Seventeen Fever Dreams,” both of which appear on their debut full-length, The Summer of Promises Kept. “Starman” is a two-minute miracle, an acoustic song that has all of the simplicity, catchiness, and spontaneity of mid-1990s Guided by Voices. It is worth noting that the liner notes of Promises say that “Starman” was “recorded, mixed, and mastered by At Dusk all at once.” “Seventeen Fever Dreams,” on the other hand, is an electric, professionally recorded instrumental that eschews anything remotely close to pop. All three musicians play in different time signatures, and the two guitarists play in different keys. Such gratuitous and grating dissonance might work in the hands of a band like US Maple or the Curtains, but At Dusk simply can’t pull it off. “Starman” and “Fever Dreams” clearly delineate the extremes of this band’s sound, which brings me to the double-edged sword this CD presents me with.
On one hand, At Dusk are three guys who sing and play well, know their indie-rock history, and have a grasp of melody strong enough to ensure that almost all of their songs have one killer hook, as well as the versatility to ensure that no two songs sound exactly alike. On the other hand, they’re three guys who can let their instrumental prowess get the better of them, don’t spend enough time in the studio to truly perfect their songs, and haven’t quite settled on a distinct sound yet. However, when At Dusk gets it right, they get it REALLY right. The songs in which the scales are tipped more toward melody and structure than dissonance and angularity are the clear standouts.
For instance, there’s “Sports,” a speedy Wedding Present-style strum-a-thon in which glockenspiel and falsetto singing usher in what could’ve been a drab rock song into a new level of beauty. Then, there’s “The Image,” a song about nightmares that benefits from great guitar work and a spastic drum-driven coda. It’s what Sebadoh would’ve sounded like if they took as many cues from Slint and Karate as they did from Minor Threat and Nick Drake. “When You’re Far Away” is a Microphones song in all but name, as an intentionally off-key and ham-fisted acoustic intro slowly builds up to a crescendo of bells, organs, and drums. Last but not least, there’s the title track, which sports some wonderful three-part harmony and spells out the album’s underlying lyrical theme.
“This is a prayer for what can’t be said,” guitarist Cary Clarke and drummer Will Hattman sing, “for all that we’ve hoped for and done instead.” Throughout many of the songs (at least the ones that don’t rely on vague, melancholy clichés), there is a sense of optimism in the face of adverse circumstances. If the title of “What May Have Been the Sun” doesn’t give it all away to you, the song’s opening lines will: “If nothing else, then smile, for we may be here for a while.” Other songs (“The Deep End,” “Titled Floors”) lament being stuck in cycles and endlessly repeating the same mistakes. Lyrically, At Dusk have a fairly even ratio of signal to noise. The aforementioned songs in this paragraph definitely belong in the “signal” category, whereas in other songs (“Up on Persephone,” “Rain in the House”) they stretch their conceits further than they can reasonably go.
There are many songs that would be up there with “Sports” and “The Image” if it weren’t for one or two detracting elements. Some otherwise tuneful songs have brief tangents of “Fever Dreams”-style atonality that disrupt the momentum, and others are marred by vocals that could’ve used a couple more practice takes. I get the feeling that they didn’t really give themselves enough time to edit and record their songs. Trust me, guys: wrong notes don’t necessarily make your songs more challenging or interesting, and only certain bands can get away with them. You’re not one of them. Also, if you’re going to make “I Am the Starman” your HIDDEN TRACK, why would you list the song as “Hidden Track: I Am the Starman” in bold print THREE DIFFERENT PLACES on the CD’s artwork? If you announce its presence, guys, then it can’t really be hidden! Overall, though, The Summer of Promises Kept is a good start, and hopefully next time around At Dusk will have enough money and/or time to iron out the kinks, settle on what kind of band they actually want to BE, and deliver a great sophomore effort.