Review Summary: Elevator music album of the year.
In my head, the premise of chamber pop/psychedelic outfit Bell Gardens was an interesting one: longtime friends and musicians Kenneth James Gibson (Furry Things, [a]pendics.shuffle) and Brian McBride (Stars of the Lid) coming together to create an album infused with the same 50s-60s essence that inspired their respective musical careers; deliberately eschewing software and synthesized sounds in favour of live recordings of strings, piano, and horns. Then there was the proclamation that they were engineering their record with a view of preserving the natural sound of the instrument and – bless my soul – the sound of the very room that it was being performed in; Willie could not hand over that promo copy of Full Sundown Assembly
In an ideal world, an album with as clear an artistic agenda as this one would have panned out perfectly, with each song sliding forth dramatically from the speakers and speaking to the essence of its narrative as purposefully as every well-intentioned artistic experiment is supposedly entitled to. But in reality, the overwrought nature of such concepts often leads to actual musical ideas being given short shrift, and sadly, Full Sundown Assembly
doesn’t do more than tailgate that trend devotedly all around the cow pasture. Somewhat passable at best, and an absolute chore to listen to at worst, this is the kind of album that might only find a place in the record collection of someone who thought that Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma
was a similarly good idea.
For their first long-player, Gibson and McBride have seemingly attempted to focus primarily on enhancing their soundscapes, diligently filling every inch of their record with wide, spacious arrangements, sonorous horns, stately piano-driven passages, and enough vocal harmonies to make a choir boy blush. To wit, a lot of work seems to have gone into making the legs on the park bench as ornate as possible, which should have been our first clue that it was going to be an equally unnecessary exercise. Don’t get me wrong, similarly-themed artistic attempts have succeeded before, but such gallant recording approaches only fly because beneath all the immaculate instrumentation, listeners are still able to find one or two musical passages that capture their attention and bring them back for more; hell, given enough time and listens, the album will even start to seem like a grower. But while I’m no expert on the science behind music or the art of replayability, I do know that things have to be kept at a minimum level of interesting; to borrow the words of our very own Adam Downer: shit has still got to slay, bro.
But unfortunately, the tone for a long afternoon is set from the first notes of album opener "Clinging To The Almost", in where a tender piano melody crawls out of the record with all the haste of molasses in winter. Such dreary tendencies continue throughout the album, with each song exhibiting some form of fatal flaw that repeatedly deters enjoyment; "Differently Tonight", for instance, spends its back-half swamped in a cheesy horn section, whilst "Nowhere" shows us how it can make puns out of its own title by exhibiting a lyrical and instrumental performance with the turning circle of the Titanic. Elsewhere, the reedy or mumbled vocal harmonies on songs like "Fruitcup", "South", and "Bobby" make them extremely difficult concoctions to swallow, and even album closer "To Land", with its panoramic orchestrations and distinct climax, leaves one with a distinct air of only having washed down the entire affair with something slightly more palatable.
In the end, it's not as if there aren't things to respect and appreciate about Full Sundown Assembly
– artistic invention, for example, comes at a premium these days. But while Bell Gardens’ raison d’etre may have been to pay homage to the classic sounds of days long since passed, I just wish that McBride and Gibson had at least remembered to be halfway interesting.