2009 release. Opening with a 10 second homage to Estonian composer Arvo Part, it's immediately apparent that A Sunny Day in Glasgow's Ashes Grammar is going to be a much more visceral outing than their 2007 album debut, Scribble Mural Comic Journal. It takes a few minutes for the record to even begin to reveal itself, as a swarm of 1950s acapella ('Secrets At The Prom') gives way to resonant drones, room noise, and sub bass ('Slaughter Killing Carnage'). It's here that 'Failure' unexpectedly kicks in with a tribal stomp and a fluttering guitar acting as a pair of wings, lifting the circular chants of the song's melody off the ground. It's all at once joyous, insecure, and blissed-out and sounds nothing like we've heard from A Sunny Day in Glasgow before.
Review by Margaret Reges
"Failure," the heady, glimmering fourth track on A Sunny Day in Glasgow's second full-length, 2009's Ashes Grammar, might just sum up the anxiety that led to the release of this album: "Fall forward, feel failure." In the two years since their 2007 debut came out, ASDIG have endured some serious (and largely involuntary) changes: bassist Brice Hickey was out of commission soon after recording was underway thanks to a broken leg; founding vocalist Lauren Daniels, busy with grad school, couldn't appear on the album; and her sister, vocalist Robin, was too busy tending to Hickey to spend much time in the studio. In spite of these setbacks, Ashes Grammar is a far more confident and cohesive album than its predecessor. Scribble Mural's ambitious multi-layered approach tended to weigh the album down; Ashes Grammar's artsy audio explorations, on the other hand, are generally fashioned around solid skeletons of pop-oriented hooks, lightening the listening experience considerably. This album features some of ASDIG's most pop-oriented work to date; tissuey, ghostly tracks like "Shy" and "Ashes Maths" and the comparatively angular, My Bloody Valentine-esque "The White Witch" stand up well next to Scribble Mural's very best moments. Really, the only complaint to be had with Ashes Grammar is its size. This disc is huge, almost self-indulgently so; clocking in at 22 tracks, Ashes Grammar demands quite a bit more patience than the average long-player, especially when it comes to cerebral, atmospheric material like this. The album's standout tracks suffer a little as a result -- by the time track 14 rolls around, it's a little difficult to hang on to the pounding exhilaration of "Failure." Those who power through this album, though, will be richly rewarded by ASDIG's diaphanous, highly intelligent take on noise pop.
The predominance of digital-editing software and increased use of sampling have made piecing together an album a much easier task than it once was. Ashes Grammar, the sophomore album from Philadelphia septet A Sunny Day in Glasgow, doesn't sound composed with modern tools-- overdubs ad infinitum-- but like pop music masterfully puzzled together. Featuring bushels of tracks that blur the line between interlude and song, many listeners will associate the two-dozen-strong tracklist with either unfinished business or lazy editing, but Ashes Grammar is a surprisingly disciplined affair. Watch the band tunnel a small groove during "Evil, With Evil, Against Evil", drop it, and pick it back up again before moving quickly on. They mine the ringing, orbital electronics of "Canalfish" for 90 gorgeous seconds before letting it slip into "Loudly"'s more concrete whoosh. "Passionate Introverts", however, needs its four-plus minutes of glowing pulse to deliver its serpentine melodies and abstracted nostalgia ("Do you believe in dinosaurs at all?", asks the chorus), and SDIG provide it the necessary breathing room. Summed, the shifting tracks pull Ashes Grammar through its hour-long runtime smoothly and patiently.
Ashes Grammar is more propulsive than SDIG's debut, Scribble Mural Comic Journal, whose effects-heavy compositions sometimes felt leaden or overconsidered. "Blood White" and "Loudly" thrum along with Krautrock-y beats. Those rhythms, when mixed with SDIG's lite-psych jams, recall Caribou's The Milk of Human Kindness or Múm's whipped electro-folk. The band plays with contrast, often layering their catchiest and most concrete vocals ("Passionate Introverts [Dinosaurs]", "Failure") over their least tidy, far-flung compositions, while their most traditionally orchestrated moments ("The White Witch", "Close Chorus") receive affected cooing and wordless harmonizing.
Twin sisters Robin and Lauren Daniels don't have remarkable voices, but they blend well with both each other and Ashes Grammar's unhurried pop. If there's a real complaint to be lobbed at Ashes Grammar it's that the sisters' voices are too often buried, and their mushmouth-y Liz Fraser-timbres too willingly blended into the pooled sonics. If SDIG didn't imbue so much of Ashes Grammar with a terse rhythmic presence, many of these songs would easily be swept into the ether.
Ashes Grammar is not for those who need their pop music spit-shined and robust. Instead, SDIG form their hooks stealthily, letting acoustic guitars and a steady patter rise from the ambient beginnings of "Starting at a Disadvantage" or repeating phrases amidst the disparate stretches of "Nitetime Rainbows". "Close Chorus" offers big, breaking hooks only after four minutes of morning chatter.
Ashes Grammar draws you in by offering outstanding moments in strange contexts; you'll re-listen to hear specific pieces even though you're unable to remember exactly when and how they occur. Ashes Grammar often feels like the result of a band who took Martha Reeves & the Vandellas' "Come and Get These Memories" in the most abstract, art-damaged way possible: nostalgic, jigsaw pop music from a group of writers strong enough to keep you humming and courageous enough to make you guess.
Andrew Gaerig, September 15, 2009