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Artist: 200 Years

Album: 200 Years

Label: Drag City

Review date: Nov. 8, 2011


200 Years - "West Hartford" (200 Years)


200 Years is a retreat. There’s a couple of ways to think about that: a strategic retreat away from pushing boundaries or a retreat to the woods for renewal. Either way, for a pair of artists known for incorporating drone and abstraction in rock and folk, 200 Years presents Elisa Ambrogio and Ben Chasny as a conventional acoustic songwriting duo. Their initial acts — Magik Markers and Comets on Fire, respectively — could mete out some punishment. While they’ve both moved toward introspective sounds since then, even Chasny’s folkiest work has come with a sense of exploration, and Ambrogio’s delivery a deadpan distance.

200 Years feels akin the original post-rock — not the 1990s idea, but the ‘70s acoustic albums that came from California rockstars retreating to Laurel Canyon mansions and ranches after too many nights of stomping on fuzz pedals at the Whiskey A Go Go. This pair isn’t tending to mansions or ranches, but there is an air of fatigue to the proceedings. Ambrogio sounds friendly, or at least like someone searching for a friend. The guitar work is made of clean and restrained strumming, elegant but unsurprising. Further back in the sound, they’ll play a haze of pump organ or pick out keys on a piano to keep the arrangements from sounding stark. The successes that come in these songs could be fully transcribed to sheet music, and that’s quite a shift for artists who’ve been about uncertain textures and what happens between the notes.

What if this duo didn’t have that history? It’s hard to imagine 200 Years standing out, even considering its low-key spirit. There are a lot of lyrics about bees and fireflies and pennies for thoughts, and Ambrogio’s delivery is sincere. Stripped of her past attitude, her voice loses a lot of what made it distinct. The problem isn’t that she’s making soothing music. Magik Marker’s “Empty Bottles” is one of the lovelier songs of the last decade, and it is little more than her quavering voice and a piano with the lid lifted. She didn’t hit the notes as smoothly then, but she inhabited her words more — like the twinge of envy when she sang “You watch the rich with their ease / with their cash / with their sleep in their beds / but the rest they get is wicked.” On 200 Years, the couplet “snowstorm speeds by the car / like observatory stars” is more striking on the lyric sheet than during “Through the Trees.”

Few artists can sustain a track built on amplifier static and plodding tempos, or make lateral thoughts connect, the way Ambrogio can. For now, it seems she wants to see what else she can do. But even after a few years living in California, the strongest song here is about the east coast. “West Hartford” describes clouds of insects and the smell of flowers, just like the other tracks. It also shows the ache of never fully escaping one’s red brick hometown, and that ache rings clearer than the love-struck afternoons and quiet nights.

By Ben Donnelly

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