Massachusetts’ Gem Club offer the illusion of moving in slow motion through their graceful, gentle compositions. Built from simple elements and spare, spacious arrangements, the songs of Christopher Barnes are not fussed-over or complex, nor do they ever make drastic shifts in tempo or rise to a soaring crescendo. In fact, they’re mostly naked, vulnerable piano ballads, touched with the occasional light percussion, or glockenspiel, or the gorgeously skeletal cello of Kristen Drymala. And that’s usually all they ever need.
Comprising nine gentle, gorgeous tracks, Gem Club’s Hardly Art debut Breakers spans a fairly brisk 37 minutes, but the songs themselves seem to have the ability to stop time. It’s not uncommon for Barnes to allow his piano to ring and fade into silence before starting a new measure, as if to allow a deep breath before any movement can continue. But for something so simple, Breakers is not background music. It’s gripping, emotionally charged balladry that captivates and progresses, glacially, much in the same way that Sigur Rós does, albeit with much slimmer means. There’s little more to “Lands” than Barnes’ own piano chords and voice, and backing vocalist Ieva Barberian, but the dynamic production to the song makes those few scant elements sound enormous, and the space between notes even more cavernous. The ascending chords of “Twins” seem to reach for some profound, out-of-sight height, yet pause before ever reaching it, and then reset. And “I Heard the Party” ever so slightly suggests the faint trace of a pop single, albeit within the group’s own skeletal and spacious structures.
Gem Club’s Breakers rarely adds more to its spare and spectral approach than the bare minimum, but it’s amazing just how powerful that stripped down approach is. This is breathtaking, devastating songwriting, and it’s as intimate as that comes. That it sounds enormous is just an illusion.
Stream: Gem Club – “Breakers”
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.