Music Reviews
Both Lights

AU Both Lights

(The Leaf Label) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Portland churns out more than its fair share of creative types overly endowed with self-belief, but duo AU might be something else entirely; not only naming the lead single from this third album the rather presumptuous Solid Gold (an element they also try to alchemise with their band name, if my sketchy memories of school Science lessons are anything to go by), but choosing to open it, perhaps with a touch of hubris, with a track entitled Epic; a track which itself opens with what sounds suspiciously like a drum solo, before introducing widdly guitar riffing, and, just to be as instantly difficult as possible, there's even the insanely gifted (but arguably unlistenable) saxophonist de nos jours Colin Stetson running through his scales in the background.

Conventional wisdom suggests that no-one likes a smart arse, but while its true (for many reasons) that Both Lights wont exactly sell by the bucketload, there's something about it that proves unexpectedly winsome. Give Epic a couple of minutes to get into its stride and, while the barrage doesn't exactly let up, it does gradually blossom, and Stetson in particular proves to be a wonderful addition; the long drawn out notes that he provides towards the end not only create something tangible to hang onto while everything around them shifts and writhes, but also an unexpected emotional uplift.

Solid Gold also lives up to its claims, even if it must be at least four different songs bolted together like the remnants of a late 80s Vauxhall Cavalier. Unlike such clapped out old bangers though, it doesn't half move at a fair pace, which might have something to do with Stetson and his unnatural abilities (the witchcraft allegations start here) making another appearance. Developing from a delicate folky a capella into spritely jazz, it's possibly what Fleet Foxes were aiming at with all those atonal squiggly bits that they put on Helplessness Blues, but is considerably more entertaining than that.

Second single Get Alive is, if anything, even better. Despite uncomfortably flirting with dreaded Mumford territory in its opening soulful mumbles and banjo plucking, it proves to be another slow-burn, managing in its classical stylings and complex harmonies to recall the spiritual euphoria of Sufjan Stevens at his most carefree (although perhaps this is also suggested by the fact that co-vocalist Holland Andrews sounds eerily similar to regular Stevens collaborator Shara Worden).

Both Lights is, in other words, quite difficult to pin down and get a handle on; being the sort of place where choral music can sit alongside punk energy, where afrobeat descends into free jazz style noise, where Jools Holland groups together music's most drunken, crazed minds to make his trademark jam sessions seem considerably less dull, as in the hellish Fiesta of Why I Must (nobody attempts a full-on "¡arriba arriba!" or "¡ay chihuahua!" but they get worryingly close). It's endlessly fascinating and, considering the muso-credentials on display, surprisingly fun to try and work it out.

However, while this (admittedly presumed) self-belief is precisely what drives them to try out such bizarre, possibly even unique ideas, it is in places what proves to be something of an undoing as well, with the album occasionally coming across as wilfully obtuse; it's difficult to work out who, if anyone, would be interested in hearing Today/Tonight, quite possibly the sound of AU testing their instruments after the frantic bashing of Solid Gold to see just how fucked they are, and therefore seems a little arrogant in its inclusion (although, on the plus side it is very short). Unsurprisingly (and perhaps thankfully) the album runs out of steam before the end, settling into a run of interchangeable, albeit elegant, slow numbers.

Really though, this is music that ultimately defies description, (and I'm not the first to say that) so there's not really much that this review can do other than limp to an unsatisfying conclusion. It might be for the best if you stopped reading about Both Lights and just started listening to it.