American Analog Set’s career split nearly in half. Their first three records (released between 1996-1999) refined a shimmery kraut-ish drone that neared sublimity at times. On their latter three, from 2000 until their 2005 demise, they incorporated a vibraphone and made some of the finest easy-listening indie rock. With the vibes’ mellow accentuation of leader Andrew Kenny’s delicate lyrics, the repetitive riffs and snare-heavy percussion, AmAnSet an ideal band for solitary late-night activities, like homework or soldering.
As the Wooden Birds, Kenny emphasizes acoustic guitars and female backing vocals, but otherwise barely departs from anything he wrote during AmAnSet’s second half. In fact, Magnolia‘s “The Other One” – a lovely song in its own right – is so similar to Kenny’s “Aaron and Maria,” that you can hum the latter’s vocals over the former’s melody. Lacking the vibes, the Wooden Birds heighten their percussion section with maracas, claves, and muted guitar picking. It’s hard to think of other singer-songwriter music with such emphatic rhythms.
AmAnSet always sounded full; their elements blended, even at the corniest, to create this wash that allowed listeners to completely space out. Wooden Birds’ arrangements are sparse: at times, as on “Believe In Love,” we get mostly percussion and vocals. That spareseness invites a closer critique of Kenny’s lyrics, especially because he sings so clearly and slowly. When understated, they can have a real richness. The line “she was seven and I was seventeen,” is a plainspoken expression of an older man’s anxiety over dating a younger woman. It’s when he gets cute ... well, you can imagine. The phrase about “when our bike tires kissed” rings like a D.I.Y. greeting card. And, post-"Exit Music (For a Film)," it’s a little hard to pull off lines about hoping someone chokes ("Choke").
But it’s hard to criticize the Wooden Birds at any length, because their music is so harmless, so unashamedly pretty and honest. It serves as a soundtrack for a melancholy evening as well as The Promise of Love or Set Free. In these times of the enveloping soundscape-core of Merriwether Post Pavilion, it’d be interesting to see Kenny revisit the more expansive – yet still intimate – sounds of his early career.