Release Date: Jan 28, 2014
Record label: Hardly Art
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Dream Pop
Melancholia reigns supreme on the sophomore effort from three-piece, Massachusetts-based, chamber pop band Gem Club. Following the trio’s striking 2011 debut Breakers, In Roses builds upon the gorgeous minimalism of its predecessor, which consisted of little more than cello, piano and Christopher Barnes’ quivering tenor. Nostalgia for an idealized, rose-colored past, regret for relationships that never quite yielded a happy ending, and a paper-thin emotional fragility loom heavily over the proceedings, yet there’s beauty at the dour core of it all.
Such a promising debut as Gem Club’s Breakers provided lovers of chamber-pop meditations a new altar at which to worship. That the band’s malleable sonic interplay was tailor-made for TV-show scoring and non-specific aural/visual pairing made it even more appealing. While there are moments of trance-inducing beauty on Gem Club’s new LP In Roses, it’s a little too much of a good thing done again.
Boston-area trio Gem Club’s 2011 full-length debut Breakers was mostly recorded in lead vocalist/songwriter Christopher Barnes’ bedroom, and that sort of claustrophobic intimacy was reflected in its narrow stylistic range and Barnes’ minimal arrangements. Breakers was an album of cool, spartan chamber-pop that relied heavily on the use of space to suggest distance and introspection. New album In Roses goes in a different direction: leaving the familiar terrain of Barnes’ living quarters, the band recorded in California, where they worked out of indie rock journeyman John Vanderslice’s San Francisco studio with local producer Minna Choi.
Joey Stefano had HIV when he died, but that’s not what killed him. A combination of heroin, morphine, ketamine, and cocaine coursing through his blood in addition to the virus ended his life when he was just 26 years old. On “Soft Season”, Christopher Barnes imagines the inner life of the young, gay porn actor, the exhaustion left in the wake of his work and his addiction.
Gem Club may lay out their minimalism with finesse and a grand sense of beauty, but their music is so drenched in misery that it can often be a little hard to stomach. Their debut, 2011’s ‘Breakers’ was so stripped back there was a sense that the instrumentation was struggling to keep up with Christopher Barnes’ vocals as they oozed pained emotion. Thankfully ‘In Roses’ shows a both simple refinement of their sound, and a slight expansion in scale.
Significantly more expansive that 2011's broken yet undeniably heartfelt Breakers, due in large part to the fact that it was birthed in a proper studio and not in singer/songwriter/pianist Christopher Barnes bedroom, In Roses, the second long-player from the Boston chamber pop trio Gem Club, blends the methodical, melancholic simplicity of the National and the slow ache of Tom Odell with the evocative orchestral Icelandic hymns of Sigur Rós. This is laptop pop writ large, and Barnes' choked, Antony Hegarty-meets-Chris Martin delivery pairs well with Magik Magik Orchestra string arranger Minna Choi's tasteful orchestral emissions, with highlights arriving via the epic "First Weeks" -- a lush, two-chord meditation on loss that feels like it was built out of rescued incidental music from a Cameron Crowe film -- the spectral "Ideas for Strings," and the ephemeral closer "Polly. " As a collection of unabashedly melodramatic, dear-diary poetic, and tastefully lush happy/sad dream pop anthems, In Roses delivers the goods with the sort of restrained panache that’s sure to win over the NPR crowd, but for all of its icy beauty and elegant self-loathing, it's terribly inert: a great deal of the record feels like Harry Nilsson's “Without You” sans the explosive chorus.
Gem Club's songs are spacious, graceful, and sad, the sort of music you'd hear drifting from a hidden PA system in an empty cathedral. In Roses is very pretty—almost overwhelmingly so—with string arrangements, choir singers, and gorgeous, sorrowful vocal work—but its pulse never rises above soporific levels. (www.iamgemclub.com) .
Gem Club — In Roses (Hardly Art)One of the eternal frustrations of art is that there’s no way to avoid missing out on something. A more specific version of this frustration adheres to all art forms where it’s possible to follow an artist; there will be some moments of pleasure, or revelation, or impact, that will only be possible if you’ve been keeping up with the artist, progressing along with them, forming your own bonds and associations. A newcomer and a devoted fan might both be able to see the beauty in a work, but only the latter might experience the extra level that is the beauty of the work in conversation with what’s come before (and of course, the newcomer might be able to experience particular moments of pleasure that the devoted fan can’t, in different circumstances).
In 2011 Boston duo Gem Club released Breakers, an album which was neither flashy nor boisterous but whose understated charms attracted a well deserved slow-burn acclaim as listeners fell under the spell cast by its minimal ornate elegies of piano and cello. A large part of the charm lay in the deceptively simple melodies which felt both remarkably intimate and yet removed from the mundane and unimaginative that often comes with such directness. Despite the abstract influences shown on the cover-art of In Roses, they’ve retained that simplicity, and this second album is an exercise in refinement rather than revolution as the group (now expanded to a trio) add layers of ambience to those hushed ballads.
Sun Kil Moon, Benji (Stream) Heartbreaking and raw, Benji is Sun Kil Moon’s best album to date, and indisputably cements Mark Kozelek’s reputation as one of the finest storytellers in contemporary indie music. Kozelek focuses each song around a central character or theme—usually friends or family from Ohio who have died or in some way encountered death—and combines tightly woven narratives with his own captivating and idiosyncratic free association to explore the way in which humans process other people’s tragedies through their own experiences. The sparse musical arrangements and haunting production only serve to heighten the album’s intimacy and ultimately render it a masterpiece of reflection and introspection, destined to be played on repeat in scores of late-night, tired, and lonely rooms.