According to the bio attached to Au’s debut self-titled release, songwriter Luke Wyland was “struck by avant-garde jazz as a teen.” That statement is a bit suspect if you ask me. Most teens I’ve ever known are way too into punk rock, hip-hop or, if more sensitive types, Belle& Sebastian than Ornette Coleman or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I, myself, didn’t even really start listening to Miles Davis until senior year, and most of my friends still don’t. So this press release means one of two things: 1.) it’s a lie, or 2.) it should have been quite clear from that moment that Wyland was well on his way to becoming an avant-garde musician of his own. Listening to Au’s first full-length, I can safely say it was the latter.
Au’s music, though largely acoustic and steeped in American folk, is by no means the `freak-folk’ of Devendra Banhart or Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice, often utilizing minimalist structures and repetition a la John Cage or Terry Riley, who are also name-dropped in conjunction with this release. Listening to track three, “Shelter,” one can hear Steve Reich in the Zen-like swirling repetition, hypnotic in its serenity. Yet, the restrained dirge “Death” is closer to a rock song, featuring vocals and verses and electric guitar, though it should be said that it resembles few popular rock songs, but rather like a Joy Division-informed spiritual, inspiring and brutal all at once.
Riley and Reich informed though he may be, Wyland is most certainly capable of writing a soaring pop song; in fact, he begins the album with an awfully good one, that being the gorgeous “Boute,” its simple piano progression rising toward a mighty climax in the chorus. Likewise, “Sum” is sprightly and gleeful in its folky strums. “Honeybee” is spacious and graceful, notes ringing out slowly with no particular hurry applied to filling in those open fields, while closer “Ask the River” slowly builds momentum with a series of metallic plucks that resembles a music box coming to life. Once it does, a song seems to form from the earth, a sort of melodic golem imbued with verve and vigor.
Though one’s art by no means determines his listening habits, it’s doubtful that Luke Wyland is the type to be blasting AC/DC from his car stereo. Suffice to say, his pedigree in leftfield music has served his art well. I hesitate to say that he is bringing the avant-garde to pop, however; the vocals interspersed between circular motions and repetitive patterns would suggest it’s the converse.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.