If you have spent too much time listening to groups like The Dirty Heads (or, if your teenage years coincided with mine, Sugar Ray or L.F.O.), you may well have been bamboozled by the myth of endless summer nights spent crushing beers and smoking fatties on the beach with thirty-seven of your closest bros and plenty of choice honeys. It’s a world where apparently no one has to work, and there’s always that one guy who picks the perfect time to pull out his acoustic guitar and start strumming a mangled version of Dave Matthews’ Band’s “Crash Into Me,” to the sadly-unfeigned approval of everyone around the bonfire. However, if you live in the real world – where you have never nestled your Mark McGrath-inspired frosted tips into the crisply-tanned midsection of some nameless stock model, and you despise that guy and his goddamned guitar – then you know full well that yndi halda’s long-awaited second album is much more appropriately tuned in to the nuances of this much-lauded season. “Under Summer” hits just the right pitch as it conjures images of those moments that are simultaneously understated and wholly triumphant. Watching dandelion spores cutting through the air on a lazy afternoon; running excitedly for cover during a sudden thunderstorm; a warm breeze kissing your cheek when you’re half asleep – this is the summer I know, and yndi halda capture it like a lightning bug in a Mason jar, only they have preserved it on record for us to marvel at any time of year.
RELEASE DATE: 04 March 2016 LABEL: Big Scary Monsters
Much has been made of the 9-year hiatus between “Enjoy Eternal Bliss” and this record, as well as the addition of vocals. What I will say is that if we can learn anything from a band that has released eight songs in a decade, it is that everything they do is precise and carefully measured. The vocals occupy just the right amount of space to increase dramatic impetus without stepping on the utter musicality of the songs. Speaking of space, there is plenty of it on this 4 track, 54-minute record. The initial worry when one sees post-rock teamed with song lengths moving well beyond ten minutes is that they will have to sit through slowly-unfolding melodies that don’t warrant a slow unfolding, or a couple of amazing crescendos surrounded by music that leaves you staring off into space thinking “so, when’s the next crescendo?” Thankfully, that is not the case here. Every moment is thoughtfully arranged and presented with purpose. The slowly-building intro to “Helena,” for instance, takes its time so as not to undersell the drama, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome either. It serves its function exactly as you hope it will, lasting just as long as it should, before yielding to the next passage. The entire album is built in such a way, and the long layoff between releases only further supports the notion that these arrangements have been meticulously tested time and again to ensure maximum impact.
“Together These Leaves” immediately discards with the notion that an album with the word “summer” in the title needs to possess a sunny disposition. Its fragile opening guitar line, in combination with the swell of strings, set a tone of melancholy that bursts open at the 1:45 mark with a post-verse instrumental refrain that acts much like a chorus, establishing a dramatic highlight that makes the heart ache spectacularly. It’s yndi halda’s Master’s course in vicarious emotion – in other words, a sad song that allows you to feel a closeness to its emotional weight, resulting in a co-habiting sense of joy. This is the only song on the album that unfolds in a more traditional manner, featuring verse-chorus-like repeated sections, a bridge, and an outro following the final “chorus.” This approach serves them well, as the climactic crescendo derives extra weight from its placement after a refrain that has already made its mark and built drama over multiple appearances during the song’s running time. It’s here that we find a band at the height of their power, and I anticipate seeing this track on my final list of 2016’s best songs.
“Golden Threads From The Sun” moves through the conventional quiet-loud-quiet-loud structure inherent in long-form post-rock, but in the context of the album and its philosophies this series of movements works well. In a way, it mirrors the passage of time during a summer day. Initially, it possesses the dreaminess of a dusk-lit landscape, followed by a more upbeat second section which echoes the joyous pulse of a night spent amongst friends, led by a plucking of strings that sounds similar to Caribbean Steel Drums. This builds to an inspiring lyrical refrain which revolves around sneaking out at night, the cries of owls, and campfires, and somehow does so without being at all cheesy, which is an achievement in and of itself. The song hits a strong crescendo before falling back into a soft build that acts like the darkened path through late night, before arriving at a brief but impactful climax that appears like a brilliant sunrise, and is gone just as quickly.
The opening build of “Helena” has already been detailed, but the extensive middle third also warrants mention for its striking production. Though this passage is essentially seven minutes of a repeated melody with minor accents layered over it, it is the prominent sound of fingers scraping along guitar strings during chord changes that stands out over and over, eventually serving both melodic and percussive purposes. This seemingly minor detail ultimately anchors the hypnotic quality that drives this refrain, revealing a strong sense of in-studio professionalism that sets yndi halda apart from many others who have tread into this realm.
The album closer, “This Very Flight,” at least initially follows the formula, but not lost in the whispered tones of its initial section is a bit of vocal that maybe best gathers together the themes of “Under Summer.” Despite featuring predominantly pensive, measured sonic qualities, this is ultimately a joyous album, and the line “raise your voice/and raise hell while you’re here” captures the carpe-diem attitude that drives this work at its core. Also well-worth noting is the finale, a 4-and-a-half-minute counterpoint to anyone claiming that an album needs to end with a large climactic burst. Instead, “Under Summer” ends with the simple strumming of an acoustic guitar, accompanied by delicate touches of piano, reminding that guy playing Dave Matthews covers to leave it to the professionals. This final refrain acts like a touching epilogue for all that has come before, like the final waning moments of a long and eventful summer, which pass just as Fall gracefully eases its way in. Its beautiful, elegant simplicity leaves me with a feeling that I can’t fully express in words, as much of it is tied to personal experience and nostalgia. It has not yet failed to leave me feeling warm and content, though, and do we really need much more than that from music, when we boil it all down?
I am wont to proclaim records as “moving” from time to time, and typically this stems from a strong sense of melancholy, pain, or brutal honesty that exudes from the music in question. It is rare that I can laud an album for being moving on the strength of its genuine, wholly-endearing sweetness. But “Under Summer” is such a record. It has a gentle quality, which lends a greater power to its dramatic swells when they arise. It also has the courage of its convictions, and as such it stands tall as an achievement of head-held-high positivity. Even its more melancholic moments seem to hold the recognition of wonders on the horizon. The dominant image that continues to arise during repeated listens is that of those perfect summer days we have often here in Vermont; days when you stand quietly, staring at Lake Champlain, then beyond to the sun glittering off of the Adirondacks, and find the faintest mist gathering at the corners of your eyes as you think to yourself “everything is alright.”