It seems as if the quickest way to success, ironically, is to have been in the long obscure Seattle band Carissa’s Wierd. The purposefully misspelled local phenomenon never quite broke out of the Emerald City, even as critical darlings for eight years. But it is in the aftermath of this talented seven-piece where success came on like a, well, forgive me, but like a Band of Horses. Not only did that group, led by Ben Bridwell, rise like a phoenix from the ashes of Wierd, quickly signed to Sub Pop, but so too did drummer Sera Cahoone, with an album soon to be released by Sub Pop. And now we have a former member of BoH starting his own gig, Grand Archives, who, guess what, are now signed to Sub Pop. I’m guessing some people at Sub Pop really, really like Carissa’s Wierd. Of course, the label synonymous with Seattle actually did put out a 7-inch by the group back in 2001. Mat Brooke is somewhat the undeclared leader of Grand Archives (of course, if he did declare it, how would I know?), having left Band of Horses after their well-received debut. But this isn’t Band of More Horses. In fact, those, like myself, who might have been somewhat disappointed by Cease to Begin will definitely find reason to rejoice in Grand Archives.
Truth be told, there are some similarities between Band of Horses and Grand Archives. There were bound to be, and it’s not just the fact that they both began with a one-word name and then expanded the moniker on the point of album release. (Band of Horses’ demos were simply titled `Horses,’ while Brooke named his band `Archives.’) Both bands blur the lines between folk, indie rock and pop. The difference lies, seemingly, in which side of Brian Wilson’s soul each artist wants to delve. While Bridwell’s latest effort was dark, gothic and introspective, Brooke’s finds the sunnier side of that equation. In other words, whereas Bridwell would rather stay “In (His) Room,” Brooke is ready to start picking up some “Good Vibrations.” Seattleites have been waiting for something to remind them of Carissa’s Wierd since all of these offshoots started putting out albums, and, maybe because of the reliance on `community,’ Brooke has finally given the fans what they want, and I get to feel good about the Wierd alums again.
The first sign of the difference in mood between Brooke and his former twice-over bandmate comes in the form of a jaunty whistle. “Miniature Birds” starts with a harmonica and then the whistling comes along. You can just picture yourself swinging your arms with your iPod on, strutting a happy strut as the organ pipes in, happy squirrels and birds bobbing their heads along with you. Sure, the first track has its moments of glee, like the incredible drum fills near the close that will easily remind you of “Funeral,” but that whistling, harmonica, organ, harmonized vocals and later horns of “Birds” are almost too much happiness to bear. It’s glorious. (And frankly, “Torn Blue Foam Couch” had a few scant moments that reminded me of Wham!’s “Freedom”).
“Birds,” obviously in my opinion one of the best tracks from the album, is followed by yet another very strong highlight, “Swan Matches.”
“Swan Matches” is a dreamy track that, guess what, reunites Brooke with Jenn Ghetto, his vocal counterpart from Carissa’s Wierd. Their voices together again, as they intone, “We flew over fences. We dodged all the moving cars, and the dry Arizona faces,” could bring tears to your eyes. There hasn’t been a folkie duo this good since Gram Parsons teamed up with Emmylou Harris. Seriously. “Index Moon” simply continues to prove that the first three tracks were no fluke. At this point, you realize to yourself, this is an incredible album. Like Brian Wilson’s best work, it has a level of complexity that isn’t at first realized because it seems so light and breezy. But there is indeed a lot more at work (and at play) here than can be gleaned from a first listen. Even the seemingly simplest songs like the sparse “George Kaminski,” features finely textured vocals and perfectly placed percussion flourishes and single piano notes.
Part of the greatness of Grand Archives belongs to the rest of the band. After all, Brooke isn’t up there on his own, though he writes most of the songs. Curtis Hall (formerly of the Jeunes), Jeff Montano (of the New Mexicans), Ron Lewis (of Ghost Stories) and Thomas Wright round out the band, providing the lovely harmonic vocals and the intricately textured tones of yesteryear. Songs like the Lewis penned “ASetting Sun” with a yearning pedal steel and overall Eagles-meets-Postal-Service-feel, and the almost out of place, yet entirely enjoyable Specials-dub-style “Breezy No Breezy” go a long way to prove the worth of the band as a whole. I almost think that Brooke couldn’t have picked a better group of musicians had he been able to reunite Carissa’s Wierd.
I seem to be going on and on, but to wrap up, you’ll find yourself lost in the hypnotizing effects of “Sleepdriving” and feeling a bit wistful at the sound of the lonely train whistle of “Louis Reel,” (named after the founder of Manitoba) featuring Sera Cahoone on backup vocals. Again, with the latter we find a glorious blend of sunny pop vocal harmonies with a genre of music normally reserved for the sad and unlucky. Even stranger still, yet working like a charm, is “The Crime Window,” a song that somehow combines two musical styles that use rollicking horns, the alt-folk/country of bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Irish punk barroom songs of bands like the Dropkick Murphys.
Sure, Band of Horses was the first out of the gate. And if they ended up setting the bar of achievement for post Carissa’s Wierd folk-pop bands, then Mat Brooke crushed it underfoot. Grand Archives is a crowning achievement of indie folk-pop. Brooke and Montano’s voices are a gift not often found in most of today’s popular bands. What I mean is, most singers can’t really sing. Brooke and Montano can, and listening to their vocals is like seeing the sun break out of the Northwestern clouds after a long overcast spring. This town has surely turned away from the wailing Stratocaster of Hendrix and the feedback-laden grunge of Nirvana in favor of folk, and most of them have left me yawning a bit. The problem was, I needed to delve into the Archives.
Carissa’s Wierd- Songs About Leaving
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young- Déjà Vu
The Beach Boys- Surf’s Up