Let’s get the obvious comparison out of the way right at the beginning – yes, Sun Airway sounds a whole lot like Animal Collective. Their debut album “Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier” holds many sonic similarities to “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, a record so many regarded as the best thing released in 2009. If there’s a band you’re going to try and imitate, at this point in time Animal Collective would be a smart move. The real challenge comes in the form of pulling it off without making a fool of yourself. There are oh so many artists out there that try to capture the zeitgeist of the times by pushing their sound in a certain direction for critical acclaim or popularity, but if it isn’t good enough there isn’t any point. Sun Airway is the duo of Jon Barthmus and Patrick Marsceill, both former members of the now-broken-up band The A-Sides. It’s taken them two long years of messing around with sounds and trying to put a record together while holding down jobs, but they’re finally done and Dead Oceans is psyched to be releasing it this week. Apparently all that time did them a world of good, because the tide is quickly rising on these guys and “Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier” is set to put them on everybody’s radar.
If you’ve gotten your hopes all high in hoping that “Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier” will be the new “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, don’t set yourself up for disappointment. This Sun Airway record is damn good, but one thing we’ve learned simply by paying close attention to Animal Collective these past several years is that such brilliance takes time to mature and fully develop. Of course every record is typically informed by the ones that came before it, so the proverbial Pandora’s Box has been opened and there’s no way to shove the flood of ideas back in. The noises that permeate and define Sun Airway’s sound are primarily electronic, from your typical bleeps and bloops to samples and beats that maintain tempo. Synths also play a huge role, as do a number of other instruments that are so varied and mixed that it’s nearly impossible to pick out each and every one. Pay close attention and you’ll catch a splattering of flute or a small dose of harp for good measure. It’s also important to note that probably 98% of the sounds that appear on the record are computer generated, meaning that they didn’t so much whip out a harp and hold a microphone up to it but instead used a program that created a “virtual harp” they could work with. Vocals aren’t really something you can fake though, so those were recorded live and the way they’re presented is one of the things that differentiates Sun Airway from Animal Collective. Barthmus is pretty much the only vocalist in the band, meaning that without an Avey Tare or Panda Bear to back him up, there’s less in the way of Beach Boys-esque harmonies. Echo effects are used with relative frequency though, to help add a nice dose of psychedelia to everything. When no vocal effects are used and Barthmus’s vocals come across with stark clarity it’s also effective in a different an unexpected sort of way.
When the vocals aren’t obscured or processed, the songs usually have strong pop elements to them, and compelling hooks are probably Sun Airway’s strong suit. Opening track “Infinity” may not have the band at their most energetic, but it serves as a strong, shimmery introduction to the record. The constant repetition of the lines “Woke up as a snowflake on an ocean/I looked over/I saw you floating next to me/drowned in the moonlight hours” works on you until it’s stuck in your head. With its toe-tappingly danceable beat and verse-chorus-verse style, “American West” is one of the catchiest songs on the entire record. It’d serve extremely well as a single, as does actual single “Oh, Naoko” which follows it. “Waiting On You” comes across as something of a cross between “Merriweather Post Pavilion”‘s “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes”, though to call it equal to either of those tracks would make it one of the best songs of the year. Perhaps it is, but it’s going to take a little longer to fully earn that honor. Towards the end of the record second single “Put the Days Away” and “Your Moon” also are two sharply addictive tracks that really help balance things out from start to finish. In other words, half the album is packed with hooks, while the other half focuses more on beauty, mood and pure balladry.
For those that found “Merriweather Post Pavilion” a bit too challenging to fully embrace, Sun Airway’s “Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier” might just be the record that skates the balance between anti-pop and pop. The record is experimental without being too experimental, and catchy without being overtly pandering. These are the sorts of things that if done correctly, will generate the right sort of buzz for a band. There are a couple small shakier/almost flat-out boring moments on this album, but they come so few and far between that they’re relatively forgiveable given how well most everything else functions. It is those times though that prevent the record from attaining that much coveted “Album of the Year” nomination but still keeps it well within the “year-end list” range. That Sun Airway began working on this record in the fall of 2008 before anyone had heard a single note of “Merriweather Post Pavilion” just goes to show that they had the right ideas from the start, even if that album did eventually provide some sort of influence in the studio later on. Where Sun Airway will go from here, and how they might benefit from this ripe Animal Collective comparison will be determined in the coming months by the ever-fickle hype cycle. They may not be ushering in a musical revolution that will become the official “next big thing”, but they have made an album more than worth your time and hard-earned cash as we continue to hold a trend towards a strong finish in 2010.