Review Summary: An unconventional, ambitious foray into the world of dream pop that succeeds on all fronts.
Glasgow is, most parts of the year, miserable. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s dark and during the winter, a permanent canopy of grey looms threateningly above the city, cloaking the sun. Ashes Grammar would symbolize those tiny, brilliant streaks of yellow light bursting through the clouds of Scotland. You could throw around names like The Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, or Mercury Rev in regards to A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s sophomore release but to reduce it to comparisons, name-drops, and soundalikes would not do it the slightest bit of justice. Ashes Grammar is an album as ambitious in concept as it is precise in execution. It is a 22-track leviathan of dream pop that moves with a rusty sheen, criss-crossing teasingly into snapshots of a hazy lo-fi world where the colours emanate in a phosphorescent glow, offering to pull us in.
Though fractured in form, where many tracks don’t pass the 2-minute mark and/or are interludes, Ashes Grammar has a remarkable flow. The band throws conventionality to the wind, scattering songs across the album in a manner that is not messy but causal. This lack of structure makes this an album that cannot just be dipped in and out at the listeners’ pleasure but instead one that not only needs to be listened to as a whole but also deserves to be. In fact, if it weren’t for the track listing, instances such as the first 3 songs would easily be mistaken for just one, as the three build upon a hymnal, choir-like quality to lead into the first fully formed song, conventionally speaking, the percussive “Failure” which pulses with an exciting, jangly melody.
To remark that the interludes detract from the album would be to miss the point entirely, as they are nothing short of coquettish in manner, teasing, and act as rewarding bridges between each jarring, beautiful song. Perhaps the best metaphor would be that of likening it to an old quilt held together by stitched patches of design, where despite it’s tattered state it is as enveloping as ever, a cohesive whole. The very size of Ashes Grammar makes it something to fall and get lost into, to explore. Tracks like “Shy” and “Passionate Introverts” move with a clear direction, as each gauzy, paper-thin layer of vocals and sparkling synth collapse into each other, letting each moment shine and slip away with grace as another takes its turn. The production of Ashes Grammar is fundamental in it’s beauty, where no layer is ever significantly predominant, but instead create a nearly elemental atmosphere where a listeners ear is grabbed by an emerging vocal hook or a distant shimmering guitar. The gorgeous, ethereal vocals of “The White Witch” are not nearly as loud as the beat of the singular beat of the drum or the warm guitar melody that lifts it but are immediately noticeable and so easy to latch onto, where on repeated listens a listener may draw an entirely different experience from it. That’s the beauty of Ashes Grammar and what can keep a listener coming back over and over again.
For all of it’s depth, it would be a crime to not comment on the immediate aesthetic beauty of Ashes Grammar. It’s not a sound atypical of the genre; the bright, glowing melodies and celestial vocals make for songs that are modestly huge. These aren’t the type of songs that would move mountains, so to speak, but rather brighten sunny days. The two things that really set this young band apart, however, is their penchant for hooks, which are to be found in abundance, and their uncanny ability to master song dynamics. Every song has a heartbeat; some underlying rhythm or pulse that audibly moves it forward, that breathes life into the composition and gives it wings to soar. The title track builds upon a beamish guitar rhythm, and as it lifts with melody and pace, so does the song. Similarly, a humming sets the tone for the fantastic “Close Chorus” and remains for its entirety, shifting melodically in pitch. Many of the interludes serve as introductions of these motifs, making it all the more rewarding to find it again in the song that follows.
Ashes Grammar is, undoubtedly, a brave album and A Sunny Day in Glasgow pull it off with seasoned tact that deceives their youth as a band. They’ve struck gold on only their second attempt and with such potential, if this is the sign of great things to come, we can expect some very, very great things out of this young Philadelphian quintet. It would be a shame to be intimidated by the tracklisting or length, as it is constantly accessible in sound, despite its conceptual difficulty. This is, without hesitation, one of 2009's gems and listening to Ashes Grammar, you can’t help but feel that Glasgow just got a little bit brighter.