Both with the American Analog Set and his new band The Wooden Birds, Andrew Kenny has played an idiosyncratic and subdued type of rock music. It is rock music, certainly, but a very laid back brand more strongly tied to dream pop and folk than any stereotypical notion of what rock music is. And what’s more, he’s quite good at it. On an album like American Analog Set’s Know by Heart, he and his bandmates found a strange and overwhelming sort of power in softly blissful pop drones and subtle grooves. And likewise, on Wooden Birds’ debut album Magnolia, Kenny helmed an indie folk record that soothed as it energized, its highly rhythmic compositions propulsive in an oddly subliminal way, never soaring in volume but consistently engaging and hypnotic.
The Wooden Birds’ sophomore effort, Two Matchsticks is, in many ways, quite similar to its predecessor, though Kenny’s methods in writing and refining the material represent a significant departure. All of the songs on the group’s debut, for instance, were written in his bedroom in Brooklyn, while the bulk of the material on Two Matchsticks has been fleshed out for live, full-band arrangements and road tested before being committed to tape. Oddly, however, Kenny makes no effort to create an album that replicates that live dynamism, instead using that energy as fuel for his own upbeat solo recordings.
Indeed, Two Matchsticks is another soft-spoken and low-key affair, one whose material primarily comprises Kenny’s soothing vocals, muted strums and hand percussion (on the back of his guitar no less). But while it’s a simple and unquestionably limited approach, it’s one he’s able to milk for all its worth, each basic structure packed with hooks and rich, mesmerizing tones. With little more than some electric guitar accompaniment and some gorgeous vocal harmonies, “Folly Cub” begins the album on a gorgeous high note, transitioning into the toe-tapping, three-chord earworm of the title track, the melody of which sounds remarkably similar to Pete Shelley’s “Homosapien.” The beautifully atmospheric “Cross My Heart” invites a bit of xylophone to the party, and “Baby Jeans” carries a touch of Southwestern twang, its light touches of tremolo guitar ringing beneath Leslie Sisson’s vocals.
In addition to the sparse flourishes added by members of The Wooden Birds’ touring band, Kenny invited a pair of other notable indie musicians to lend their own imprint. “Be No Lie” features vocals by Matt Pond on what stands out as a smoky and infectious highlight, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard duets with Kenny on the lazy and gentle strums of “Warm to the Blade.” Yet whatever guest appearances Two Matchsticks has, they never overshadow Kenny’s songwriting, which is disciplined yet effortless, a carefully crafted sonic treat that never bludgeons the listener or overplays its hand. The Wooden Birds work largely in muted tones and subtle shades, and while that might be something few artists would be willing to successfully explore in great depth, Two Matchsticks is a testament to simple beauty.
Death Cab for Cutie – We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes
Bill Callahan – Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird
Seabear – We Built a Fire
Stream: Wooden Birds – “Two Matchsticks”
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.