Release Date: Jun 24, 2014
Record label: Lefse Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Dream Pop, Shoegaze
Philly dream pop collective A Sunny Day In Glasgow have always been too eccentric to be considered pop innovators, but on their fourth full-length, Sea When Absent, that should change. Taking a four-year break seems to have helped the band swap their avant-garde tendencies for a more streamlined take on their forward-thinking pop music. Sea When Absent shows a marked improvement basically everywhere, but the strongest evidence is in giving their melodies and vocals clarity to grow and have impact.
What would shoegaze sound like if it had its eyes on the sky? Over the course of several albums, the intercontinental six-piece A Sunny Day in Glasgow have been toying with an answer to that riddle. Their latest and best record, Sea When Absent, has an atmospheric, bleeding-watercolor quality that makes it sound a little bit like a My Bloody Valentine record if the moodiness and pensiveness were replaced with a feeling of almost violently explosive joy. Beneath dense textures, melodies pop like fireworks.
We tend to think of noise as something that obscures or confronts – either the haze that makes bands like No Age or Japandroids mysterious or the storm clouds that made Sonic Youth “dangerous” or provocative. So it can be jarring when one finds that A Sunny Day In Glasgow, on their very good new album, Sea When Absent, have managed to turn a three-decade tradition of wall-scraping audio difficulty into deeply enjoyable pop music. Where Cloud Nothings (for instance) offer gnarled tunefulness despite the aural whirlwinds that wrap around their weary emo, so that the band’s agile melodies seem hard-won, fighting their way to the top of a maelstrom, A Sunny Day In Glasgow have more or less become sculptors of sound, turning discord and dissonance into harmonic loveliness.
With their fourth album, A Sunny Day In Glasgow are mounting a fierce campaign to propel their sparkling shoegaze into a poppier stratosphere. ‘Sea When Absent’ has the same beautifully overlapping vocals as Cocteau Twins and the same mess of melodies as My Bloody Valentine, only less obtuse and a hell of a lot happier. Highlights are the stunning ‘Bye Bye, Big Ocean’, which piles tight lyrical hooks into post-rock guitars, and ‘The Body, It Bends’, on which vocalists Annie Fredrickson and Jen Goma deliver an irresistible (if indecipherable) duet over pristine synths.
Even the most nostalgic, most bittersweet, most cherished memories couldn’t form a scrapbook as joyous and mesmerising as A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s third record, ‘Sea When Absent’. Chocker-block with an infinite amount of intricate fleeting moments within its 11 tracks, ‘Sea When Absent’ is A Sunny Day in Glasgow feeling rosy cheeked, fresh-faced and wide-eyed for the first time in their career. Right from the get go of opener ‘Bye Bye, Big Ocean (The End)’, it’s clear that things are vastly different this time around.
Twenty-two years ago, Nostradamic pop critic Simon Reynolds predicted that pop music would become a game of mix-and-match rather than great leaps forward, as artists would fuse genres and sounds together to create new music. A Sunny Day in Glasgow's fourth offering might have been the sort of thing he had in mind: listening to it is like standing in the middle of a festival with music coming from all directions. Somewhere between My Bloody Valentine and the Avalanches, the Philadelphia group hurl everything from shoegaze to dreampop into their sonic soup, garnishing it with 1960s girl-group melodies, children's voices, echo and FX-laden guitars.
For a band whose members never seem to be in the same place at the same time, A Sunny Day in Glasgow manages to create a type of harmonious musical interface that makes their distance seem inconsequential. What separates the band's fourth record from earlier material is that it explores sound in a way that the sextet had yet to go before. Perhaps this can be attributed to enlisting an outside producer in Jeff Zeigler, or to co-founder Ben Daniels allowing for more contributions from his bandmates.
The fact that the six members of A Sunny Day in Glasgow rarely interacted in person while making their new album, Sea When Absent, and that their members are spread over two continents shouldn’t be as interesting a piece of trivia as it sounds. Despite the exponentially growing interconnectedness of the world and how little time people actually spend physically with one another thanks to smart phones, we still cling to this image of band members all being longtime childhood friends and jamming together in their drummer’s garage. Even though we live in an age where band members can be spread across two American cities and Sydney, Australia – places literally on opposite ends of the Earth – and communicate effectively, the very idea of this distance between creative forces goes against our entire notion of bands as a connected, cohesive unit.
I like to think there are still a lot of us out there who are both enamored with reverb-drenched pop rock and keen on seeing that cherished aesthetic expand to a less serviceable MO. In other words, people who are still smitten with the ever-wondrous Loveless, yet still retain a soft spot for the opaque, borderline new age of bands like Slowdive or Tamaryn. The collapsing pop confection has time and again established itself as a sort of ubiquitous feeling, yet there is enough ambivalence toward shoegaze that its reverent practitioners are free to mess with the formula.
The release of A Sunny Day in Glasgow's fourth album, Sea When Absent, brought with it some major changes in the way the band operate. It's their first album to be made in a studio with a real producer; their first where the group's usual mastermind Ben Daniels removed himself from the day-to-day recording process (thanks to his living on a different continent), and the first where Daniels didn't write the vocal melodies and lyrics. Philadelphia mainstay Jeff Ziegler recorded the band, longtime ASDIG member Josh Meakim took over as the chief architect of sound with help from bassist Ryan Newmyer, and vocalist Jen Goma stepped into the role of lyricist.
Ashes Grammar by A Sunny Day in Glasgow remains one of my favorite records of recent years. Its heady, swirling mix of shoegaze, synth-pop, and dream pop was a welcome alternative to the legions of shoegaze bands haplessly trying to re-create Loveless (or, more likely, trying to re-create Slowdive’s Souvlaki). Nothing about the band explicitly defined them as… well, anything.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow owes its sound to a dozen or more alternative rock styles, but leans most heavily on the kind of light melodic distortion and sun-drenched harmonies engineered by dream-pop bands like the Cranberries and the Sundays. Taken in parts, Sea When Absent's various '90s-born elements would suggest a much more predictable, if still pleasant, retro-gazing rock album, perhaps another entry to add to the emo revival currently headed up by You Blew It! But the overall results aren't so concrete or easily categorized, as the Philly-based band has a predilection for being wonderfully erratic, almost fickle, in the way they string together their ideas. In a way, Sea When Absent is galactic, a large, churning amalgamation of music that belies the structured nature of its smaller parts.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow has spent the better part of its still-brief career skirting preconceived genre categories with abandon, so it makes sense that the group now shirks geographic barriers as well. These days, the members are spread among New York, Philadelphia, and Sydney, Australia, where de facto leader Ben Daniels moved in 2009. None of them live in Glasgow.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow - presumably named after some work of science fiction, rather than a real-world event - have largely flown under the radar since forming in Philadelphia in 2006. On closer inspection, that’s really quite strange; over the past few years, plenty of bands have taken their cues from the freewheeling guitars of, say, Pavement, done precisely nothing new with them, and still enjoyed plenty of acclaim from the critics (Parquet Courts spring to mind...). Similarly, when Yuck plundered the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr.
A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Sea When Absentopinion byBRENDAN FRANK There wasn’t a single point during the recording of Sea When Absent when A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s six members (guitarist/frontman Ben Daniels, bassist Ryan Newmyer, drummer Adam Herndon, and factotum Josh Meakim, and vocalists Jen Goma and Annie Fredrickson) were all in the same room together. On their latest and possibly best record to date, their ideas are united by jubilance if nothing else, striking in their eccentricity. Sea When Absent is a little less weird than ASDIG’s other efforts, but also riskier.