2005 has already been a great year of music for me as a fan, but my favourite releases have come from unexpected artists who I had only had a faint knowledge of prior to their 2005 release. One such band that has most impressed me and whose music has become absorbed into my daily ruminations is Summer Lawns. I’ve actually known about this NYC band for quite some time, at least a year, as an internet friend of mine sent me a little 3 song EP called Your Now Is My Surroundings. My friend, Peter, thought I would like the band’s mellow and spacious songs and nice use of the cello, and indeed, I did find Your Now Is My Surroundings charming. Yet, not really sure of where the band was going, or even if the EP was widely available, and reeling from a nice bout of laziness, I didn’t bother to review the EP for this site. I’m kicking myself hard in dark places right now due to my lack of foresight, because Summer Lawns have just released a most impressive full-length of all new material in First We Waited…Then We Started. On this exquisite 9-track CD, released on their own label Stunning Models on Display music label in tandem with the ever-intelligent and expanding Isidore Records, Summer Lawns showcases a remarkable breadth and sensitivity in their music.
The sound of Summer Lawns on First We Waited…Then We Started is dark, often foreboding, and moody. Perfect night music, in fact, that somehow sounds both pastoral and fiercely urban. Consisting of Jeremy Linzee, a mysterious front-man whose voice bears a bit of resemblance to Thom Yorke (but less grating and perhaps with more range), the thoughtful guitar and keyboard lines of Matt Heslinga, Laurel Birkey, whose cello either quakes with deep intensity, or gently drones behind the music, and the creative drumming of Kieran Kelly, Summer Lawns is greater than the sum of its already impressive parts. The band’s style is similar to a cross between the slow and patient music of Low, harkening to the dissonant chords of Radiohead, however incorporating moments of psychedelia, lingering rock, and singer-songwriter sensibilities, creating a unique and haunting musical structure. With creative guitar and drum arrangements, a passionate and understated vocal performance by Linzee, and intriguing lyrics, Summer Lawns goes well beyond their prior EP release to create an atmospheric and cathartic collection of songs to night-drive to.
First We Waited…Then We Started both opens and closes with the band’s most accessible songs (which is not to say that these songs are not interesting). The CD opens with “Piano Song”, which begins as an almost mathy song where lingering guitars, gentle keys, and tenor vocals remind the listener immediately of Ok Computer-era Radiohead, or even a Coldplay untainted by mainstream success. “Piano Song” builds to a quaking rock song, and during the climax Linzee reverts to an impressive falsetto while the guitars charge towards the song’s culmination. As solid as the song is, and it IS a good song, the fact is that “Piano Song” is a little misleading, as it almost paints Summer Lawns as a rock band intent on skillfully veering a little left of other, more popular bands. The seething “Jack the Ripper” immediately sets the listener straight, though, with its rich-toned cello, ultra-slow tempo, and strange guitar lines. As Kelly slowly and methodically builds his percussion parts, Linzee wearily sings cryptic lines. “Jack the Ripper” is a wonder of a song, as mourning guitars and that ever-droning and ominous cello usher in an intensity that overwhelms the listener. “Twin Peaks” continues in this mellow and highly emotional vein, as gentle guitars and Linzee’s beautiful phrasing gently lead the listener to a musical chorus that breathes resonantly. One of the many strengths of Summer Lawns is their ability to phrase their music as a band: the vocals, guitars, cello, even the percussion expands and contracts so gracefully, giving their music a vitality and richness that is rare in any genre.
“Twin Peaks” is a study in the use of subtle dynamics and smartly –written parts that give the music a sense of motion, finally culminating in a dreamy and beautiful postlude, complete with layered vocals, loungesque percussion, and rich strings. Bearing the signature line, “The city is a layer of concrete and wood. Peeling away one layer won’t do you any good”, “Concrete and Wood” shimmers with muted percussion, deep distorted guitars, and equally deep vocals by Linzee. The song’s layered guitars, perhaps reflecting the various layers of urban life that the lyrics point to, gradually swell to a magnificent crescendo of psychedelic proportions. Just as the listener is convinced that Summer Lawns are masters of dark and foreboding territory, the gentle and lush strains of “This Little Light of Mine” begin. Yes, this is the same song sung in your Sunday School class, and while on paper the idea of including such a song might sound extremely out of place at best, Summer Lawns pulls it off brilliantly. The band recasts the song as a slowcore gem, with liquid guitars cradling Linzee’s gentle vocals, before swelling into a protracted climax of distorted guitar lines.
Equally stunning (and an intriguing song to come after a children’s hymn) is the Joy Division cover “Transmission”. The early minutes of Summer Lawns’ version of this song is spent in ambience, with soft drones and vocals singing the familiar lines “Listen to the silence, let it ring on”. Incorporating layers of dexterous guitar lines, “Transmission” builds through dissonant walls of sound to become a full-on rocker. “I Can’t Help It ‘Cause I’m Crying…Dolly’s Dying” returns the band to its own song writing, building from stringy guitars and falsetto vocals to a bombastic ending, a la “You and Whose Army”, or perhaps “Pyramid Song”. Yes, Linzee sounds remarkably like Yorke on this song, which will either please or mystify music fans. In my case, I’m rather impressed that Linzee could carry a song so convincingly, allowing listeners to hear his voice presented without embellishments and naked in emotion, similarities to another singer aside. “How To Furnish Life In The Desert” is a mellow song, featuring acoustic guitars, more sparse drumming from Kelly, and a myriad of other sounds that float in and out of the mix. Despite “Choke”’s title, this closing song is First We Waited…Then We Started’s most benign song musically (though featuring such thought-provoking lyrics such as “It’s the best things that make us choke”). Musically, the song is a pretty ballad, with gentle strings, guitars, and Birkey providing dreamy background vocals. Yet, the allure of the song is found in its melancholy lyrics, and sung over the street instrumentation, these lyrics present a wistful end to an amazing album.
Peter, my internet friend, was right. I DO like Summer Lawns, and very much so. From relative obscurity, they have released a sumptuous CD, full of musical and lyrical depth worthy of making any smart listener’s year end top 10 list. First We Waited…Then We Started is one of the sleeper discs of the year: a disc released without the benefit of a huge publicity scheme, but one that will stay with the lucky people who get to hear it. I’d suggest you become one of those people and buy this disc now, before this group gains the respect and attention it no doubt will if they continue to release music with the same quality as First We Waited…Then We Started. Don’t be like me at first and fail to recognize this great talent when it’s right before you…