Few bands are as fluid in personnel as Portland’s Au. At its core, Au is the work of one Luke Wyland, the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and mad scientist of the group. Wyland is the lone musician credited in all nine tracks on Au’s second full-length album Verbs. Yet Au is, in fact, an actual band, with Jonathan Sielaff, Mark Kaylor and Becky Dawson playing regular roles, and various other musicians filling in where necessary. Yet that rotating cast of auxiliary musicians can swell up to double digit numbers, as on “All My Friends,” in which Wyland seems to have literally invited all of his friends to join in on a group dubbed `The PDX Ecstatic Singers.’ In this sense, it’s easy to see where Au begins (Luke Wyland), but where it ends is a much more nebulous concept.
Following in the path of last year’s self-titled effort, Verbs combines a psychedelic atmosphere with freak folk ecstasy and avant garde 20th Century composition for a sound that’s as bizarre and amorphous as it is inviting. Yet what makes Verbs a warmer and more accessible listen than its predecessor is that group dynamic which Au has seemingly grown into. Though Wyland is still in charge this time out, the songs have a richer, more robust, and therefore more friendly sound than before, with each player contributing to a greater whole. In fact, Wyland & Co. put the most dense track, “All My Friends,” right at the beginning, barraging the listener with two dozen voices in a messy but uplifting track that displays the sublime power within the group’s loose-structured arrangements.
“Are Animals” is simultaneously more accessible and more chaotic. Percussion bangs and rattles, and voices howl and squeak. Yet there’s a strong melodic undercurrent, pushing the song toward a transcendent, yet slightly frightening climax. As the song settles into its second half, urgent, furious basslines and blazing organ take over, with voices eventually returning to carry the song to a high-energy close. “Summerheat,” by contrast, builds slowly from ambient warbles in something resembling a mashup of Steve Reich and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works series.
“RR vs. D” was released as a single, and with good reason; while Au isn’t a band that one might associate with a singles format, in this instance, the group excels at vibrant, hyperactive, Tropicalia-inspired pop. With barroom piano, handclaps and refrains of “get it, 1-2-3,” “RR vs. D” becomes a spectacular circus of sound. In “All Myself,” the slow piano hook and streaks of clarinet find the band creeping toward the ambient folk-pop of Grizzly Bear, which is a direction that suits them well. This song is absolutely gorgeous, and by comparison to its company on Verbs, further steeped in subtlety.
“The Waltz,” with its wailing clarinet and wheezing accordion, likewise carries a bit of Grizzly Bear in its schizophrenically somber arrangement, albeit with a touch of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up.” In any case, it’s a gorgeous track, for all its over-the-top sounds, and transitions into the aptly-titled “Sleep,” a beautiful and hypnotic close to an otherwise manic and unconventionally fun album. Au has become something much bigger than its humble beginnings, and has multiplied to something greater than the sum of its parts. Whether the work of one man or 20, Au is a strange and flexible creature that breathes beautiful sounds and seems to only grow and become stronger as time stretches on.
MP3: “RR vs. D”
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.