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The Aislers Set - How I Learned to Write Backwards

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Artist: The Aislers Set

Album: How I Learned to Write Backwards

Label: Suicide Squeeze

Review date: Apr. 13, 2003

Needles in the Hay

For the pop-music artisan looking to make any impact on the people, subtlety is an increasingly risky tactic. For each record heralded as a masterpiece of understatement, many more are bound to be perceived as just plain boring. How I Learned to Write Backwards, the second full-length from San Francisco's Aislers Set, is not just plain boring, but too often it feels as though a swift kick in the ass would do it a world of good. Its successes — its pleasing idiosyncrasies, its moments of charm, and so on — are there, but underneath a veneer of such blandness that finding them seems like more trouble than it's worth.

The surface nature of the album isn't really problematic in itself. In fact, it works well enough in the tradition of, say, the demure French pop song: atop alternately low-key and perky guitars and simplistic drumming, Amy Linton coos languidly à la Margo Guryan (or Isobel Campbell's best impression of her). Sometimes horns or piano or xylophone come in to augment the simplicity, and all would be good — if not for the damning part: each song runs into the next without so much as a change in dynamic or pace. Even the best track, the Belle and Sebastian-like "Mission Bells," only stands out due to its regal horn accompaniment. It's not until "Attraction Action Reaction" stops mid-stride that one notices that six tracks have gone by, and once the coy "Through the Swells" begins, the album glides listlessly on.

Some short songs lean toward the faster side of medium, and their placement at more or less even intervals sometimes breaks up the monotony. However, instead of keeping How I Learned fresh, they only disrupt what would otherwise at least be a consistently dull pace. The ironically titled "Languor in the Balcony" is the most excitable How I Learned seems to get, but its two minutes of early Beulah-esque pep offer only a fleeting reprieve from, er, the languor in the rest of the house. Meanwhile, the late-album instrumental "The Train #1," which seems determined to prove some technical proficiency, falls prey to its own arbitrary tempo changes and repetitions. Its companion, "The Train #2," though uncharacteristically hurried and noisy, does not revive anything so much as cause undue distraction.

What makes all this worse is that there's worthwhile content underneath everything. It shouldn't take ten listens to become familiar enough with the unremarkable surface to look past it, but such is the case here. A wave of unlikely distortion in "Catherine Says," the pastoral organ drawl and piano part in "Attraction Action Reaction," or the distant echo of "Unfinished Paintings": these all add charm and intricacy to the mix, but they're scantily placed, and a labor to find under the dominating simplicity of it all. Additionally, though Linton's voice is by no means a bad one, it is guilty of the worst crime on How I Learned: under the glossy overdubs of her syllable-slurring soprano, her lyrics are all but incomprehensible. A shame, because it is her irreverent smirks like "Words so insightful/ Your life so delightful/ As you fuck the neighbor you employ" that might well have redeemed the whole project. Here again the Belle and Sebastian comparison becomes prevalent, but it could be happily overlooked if only it would add some color. As it is, a once-over of the shiny green and gold liner notes is a more rewarding experience than listening to the album.

It's not difficult to listen to this album, but it's difficult to pay attention for any substantial amount of time, and harder still not to think of those who have done the same thing more successfully. The Aislers Set are doing something right, as they show a few inspired moments, but on this release they've got the proportions all wrong. How I Learned to Write Backwards is neither new nor exciting, but with a little less subtlety and a lot more boldness, a better album next time around isn't out of the question.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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