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Artist: Quilt

Album: Quilt

Label: Mexican Summer

Review date: Nov. 9, 2011

Quilt’s debut LP finds a trio of friends–primary members Shane Butler and Anna Fox Rochinski as well as drummer John Andrews–turned inward, focusing on group dynamics as they send songs around the triangle. The main pole for this tendency is the reliance on two- and three-part vocal harmonies that serve as the backbone for these 10 songs. Opener “Young Gold” establishes this point quickly, with the three voices moving from unison to opposition to round over the course of three minutes. The song also showcases Quilt’s ability to effortlessly move between two major modes: psychedelic pop, a la the Zombies, and a contemporary take on a lot of art-punk tropes, a la Grass Widow.

Objectively, there is nothing inherently “good” or “bad” about either mode. But the treatment each receives at the hands of Quilt lends itself to that kind of binary analysis. The band is good when they assume the role of competent indie band in a more contemporary idiom, and bad when dumpster diving through the refuse of riffs, positivity, and snake-oil consciousness expanders available by the bin at any used record store.

Take “Cowboys in the Void.” It’s clearly one of the centerpieces of the album, in terms of length and ambition, two fronts on which it doesn’t disappoint. It deals largely in distance, but along a very thin border that ultimately leaves the song feeling unresolved, amateurish, and not quite anywhere. On one side is a kind of emotional distance that resembles early Modest Mouse tones of alienation, with a crescendo and a suspense that is worth following. But on the other side is a pesky penchant for exploration and expansion of a “cosmic” level. And I air-quote cosmic, because that’s always been a specious designation, especially for music that, ultimately, is much too low-stakes to be opening any third eyes. Quilt is good at aping the group harmonies, both literal and figurative, of The Free Design, but to no end. It’s all style, no content, delusional or otherwise.

“Milo” finds itself in a similar predicament, with many of the same markers as “Cowboys in the Void”: long, noodly, ambitious. And it also shares a number of its weaknesses, principally a commitment to a psychedelic positivity that is just a poor fit. But where “Cowboys” loses momentum as it sinks backwards in time, “Milo” shows that Quilt is not only at their best when they’re modern, but they’re capable of updating old harmonic techniques. There are moments that strike a perfect chord between Guided By Voices and Woods that embody the communal wanderings of both bands, without venturing too far down the hippy-dippy path. These moments are rare, yes, but they continually crop up in the latter half of the album, which might be the significant embodiment of hope here.

It’s clear that the friendship binding the band is a valuable one for all of Quilt’s members. And they’re on the right track in mining that relationship when it comes to songwriting. It’s just that they haven’t figured out what their real strengths and weaknesses are as a band. In trying to (at best) emulate similarly minded bands like Ganglians and Amen Dunes and (at worst) follow old recipes, they’re cannibalized not by derivation but awkwardness.

By Evan Hanlon

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