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Above the Golden State
Artist: Above the Golden State
Label: Sparrow/EMI Music (2008)
Length: 13 tracks/ 46:23 minutes
Ask any marathon runner and they’ll tell you; pacing is everything. Indeed, one has only to count the number of first-timers who tear away from the starting line at full speed, only to crumple over in a pain-wracked heap less than half way through the grueling 26.2-mile race, to see that the adage holds true. One could argue that the same principle applies to members of the music-making community as well, where the smarter performers spread their talent and vision over the course of a given album rather than cramming all of their best ideas into the first two or three songs and then padding out the remainder of the record with filler.
Whether they consciously subscribe to the “consistency is king” theory or not, frontman Michael Watson and his fellows in the Portland-based trio, Above the Golden State, certainly manage to keep the quality control consistently high over the course of their self-titled freshman outing. Perhaps even more remarkably, though, is the way in which the savvy Northwesterners manage to churn out such a uniformly striking effort without repeating themselves musically. Indeed, the tracks on the group’s initial release are every bit as notable for their wide-ranging musical textures as they are for the way in which they fit together into a cohesive and unified whole.
“Loud and Clear” and “Gaze into Your Eyes” open the proceedings in convincing form, complements of their infectious melody lines, towering choruses and smooth-as-silk vocals. “I’ll Love You So” maintains the momentum nicely, trading the careening Starfield/Sanctus Real-derived pop/rock of the leadoff cuts for the buoyant, seventh chord-laden modern power pop of artists like Fountains of Wayne. The sparser and more subdued, but no less beautiful, “Scared” sounds like a lost collaboration between Simon & Garfunkel and the members of Delirious. And the electronic percussion, sparkling acoustic guitar work and soaring harmonies of “Love” place the exceptional piece on equal footing with any of the material on the milestone self-titled debut from Jars of Clay – a feat that even many of the JoC cooperative’s later compositions failed to match.
His band’s imposing instrumental acumen notwithstanding, the project’s greatest selling point is Watson’s skill as a songwriter. The true impact of “Loud and Clear” (I’m not afraid when I’m alone/ I’ve seen a symphony of sunsets/ I want to know You as I’m known), for example, lies in its unflinchingly bold sense of self-awareness. “Love” (I pray for love more and more/ That I might have love like Yours/ A love that goes from east to west/ A love that has no height or depth) is rendered likewise potent by its simple, to-the-point poetry. And the full insight and depth of tracks like “Streets” (When shadows turn to faces/ When faces take on names/ When names tell us their stories/ Of their brokenness and pain) become apparent only upon a close and thoughtful examination of their lyrical content.

Very rarely, Watson does hit the occasional lyrical slump; the downturn being most evident in the clichéd language of “All My Heart” (I don’t want to live/ For anything but You/ And all I have to give/ I give it all to You) and the overused life-as-a-movie theme of “Real to Reel.” Even during these infrequent moments of lyrical unsteadiness, however, the self-titled record loses precious little steam, thanks to its shimmering, full-bodied production the ATGS threesome’s spirited delivery and attention to sonic detail. Of course, only time will tell whether successive efforts from Watson and his cohorts will be able to repeat the extraordinary showing made by the inaugural outing. Be that as it may, the talented Oregonian threesome can nonetheless lie back for the time being and bask in the knowledge that they have produced one of the most unswervingly engaging albums of the year so far.

Bert Gangl, (08.12.08)


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