The name that singer / songwriter Mike Aho and his cohort Steve Stratton chose for themselves could easily be just a cool word that they chose. On the other hand, it could be the cleverest tag ever given to an indie band. You see, Sounder has two different, almost equally famous connotations, and both can be related to the band. The first is the 1969 Newberry Medal winning book about an African-American boy trying to get an education, his father, jailed for stealing food to feed the family, and their dog, Sounder. You may be asking at this point, what the heck does this have to do with the band? Well, for most of the book, Sounder stays underneath the house, nursing a wound in his ear. Sounder, the musical duo, recorded their debut album on a laptop under a mini-ramp! The other Sounder that I know of is the Everett / Seattle / Tacoma commuter train. Just as the train is an ingenious and often overlooked convenience, so too is the music of Sounder, simple in its approach, but seemingly inspired upon further examination.
The second song on Another Sun (I’ll be damned if I keep repeating that album title over and over) is called “This is a Sound Like Any Other Sound,” and nothing could be further from the truth. The strength of the album lies not in any kind of pure originality, however, but in the blending of various styles. Songs like the wonderfully titled, “You’re Really Taking it Well (About Your Invisible Hell)” are what you might imagine if Isaac Brock fronted Grandaddy covering Bonnie `Prince’ Billy songs. Aho’s acoustic guitar combined with various laptop flourishes and Stratton’s drums make for interesting and compelling compositions. “It Probably Only Seemed Like a Laser Beam” is another one of those inspired tracks, with the guitar coming to the forefront as if it were the vocals. A homemade quality does come through, as the sounds do tend to fuzz out as they get louder, but that only adds to the experience. Each track has a kind of extended instrumental lead up, like some kind of Mogwai or Godspeed! You Black Emperor intense droning. By just using the instrumentals, Sounder could have easily made themselves an accomplished album, but Aho’s lyrics and voice add another dimension, that only found in some of the Phil Ek produced albums of the ’90s, including some by Built to Spill and Modest Mouse.
The female background vocals to “Devil Did You Lead the Way This Time” and the Mouse-y screaming of “Everyone’s a Neutron Bomb” over the Jane’s Addiction like sampled interview take some old and make them new again. “It’s a Terrible Thing” is a slower, more meditative number, like a Danielson project on Vicodin. The instrumental “ssnnddrr” is slightly creepy, with plucked guitar notes overlapping breathy keyboards, sounding like the soundtrack to some David Lynch and Tim Burton collaborative project. The final track, “Oh Darkness Looming” pays homage to Bonnie `Prince’ Billy, slow and sad, simple and straightforward with the title being most of the lyrics throughout the first half of the song.
Another Sun is one of those albums that seems simple and thrown together from a distance. I mean, after all, who can’t get a laptop and just start recording songs under a mini-ramp? But what shines through is Aho’s talent for songwriting, something he also does as a solo artist outside of Sounder. It is that songwriting strength which guides the album, an inspired combination of electronics, acoustic instruments and poetic lyrics. I should probably warn Aho and Stratton that after the dog that is their namesake comes out from under the house, he eventually dies. Look out!
Grandaddy- The Sophtware Slump
Modest Mouse- This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About
Bonnie `Prince’ Billy- I See a Darkness