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Summer Hymns - Clemency

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Artist: Summer Hymns

Album: Clemency

Label: Misra

Review date: Jul. 22, 2003

A Fertile Soil

Unlike other musical boomtowns, Athens, Georgia, was never commercially-oriented or hip enough to be destroyed by fashion or evil record executives. True, the Elephant 6 collective fell apart due to infighting and drugs, and Neutral Milk Hotel might never record again. But the town never got bathed in hype, resulting in the kind of “hotspot” articles you might find in Time Magazine, telling you about the chic charms of Williamsburg. One can only assume that this is for the better, since it shouldn’t take quite as long for the soil to become fertile again, allowing new bands to spring forth.

In practice, this has worked out reasonably well, with Athens producing the Mendoza Line and a handful of others in recent years. Among these is Summer Hymns, a band who is Athens pedigreed through and through. Unlike the Mendoza Line, whose contact with Athens scenesters probably amounted to eyeing up Robert Schneider in a bar, past versions of Summer Hymns borrowed members from Elf Power and Of Montreal, and the new lineup retains that communal aura. The instrumentation is eclectic, with lots of 60s-era sounds and a country-influenced approach. Singer and primary songwriter Zach Gresham wears his influences on his sleeve on Clemency, the group’s third full-length, but thankfully possesses enough inherent ingenuity to largely transcend them, although he occasionally fails to shake the ghost of the Flaming Lips.

Still, if you’re going to borrow, a well-performed Lips pastiche is hardly the worst crime you could commit, and most of the album manages to define itself on its own terms. This is especially the case with album opener “Footprints”, a restrained, mid-tempo country tune with a liberal dose of vibraphone and a sense of deep emotion lying just below the surface. Despite the absorbed Athens influence, this is not a psych record, and most of the material here is quite far removed from bands like Olivia Tremor Control. Gresham would seem to be more of a fan of Pavement and mid-period Neil Young than the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, but his band seems to lean the other way, which gives the album something of a fresh approach. Gresham apparently brings song skeletons to the rest of the players, and it works: there are old-school synth lines and weird found sounds orbiting around Gresham’s pop songs, giving the arrangements a real unpredictability. One senses that a more straightforward approach wouldn’t be to the songs’ benefit, as the more conventional tunes on the record can feel a little second-hand.

Largely, though, this is an intriguing, often rich album that rewards a close listen. Whatever Neutral Milk Hotel might do next, it’s encouraging to know that the atmosphere in Athens is still positive, a place where bands swap members freely and emphasis is placed on strong melodies and originality of performance. At its best moments, Clemency is an album of confident, classically-oriented pop that ably betrays both its influences and its ambitions. Gresham has a strong voice, and a real knack for affecting melodies. His band has made a consistent album that suggests that they could one day be very, very good. They’re not quite there yet, but with the heat off Athens, it seems that they could quickly make up the ground.

By Jason Dungan

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