Summer’s tyranny is finally coming to an end. I don’t know about you, but those of us in Nebraska — or at least the eastern part of it — have been blessed with the most perfect sort of weather: temperatures in the 60s and 70s, slightly overcast skies with hints of rain, and a slight chill in the air that hints at trees ablaze with color, the smell of fireplaces, and the most beautiful sunsets you can imagine. Yes, autumn is on its way, and it’s enough to make a introvert like myself do a somersault or two of joy.
So to celebrate this most glorious of seasons, I’ve put together a playlist of some of my favorite autumnal albums. Many of these lean towards the more atmospheric and melancholy ends of the musical and emotional spectrum, which I find makes for perfect music whether you’re strolling down a leaf-strewn sidewalk in the twilight or peering out the window at the blustery weather outside whilst sipping your beverage of choice.
Epic45 – May Your Heart Be The Map (2007, Make Mine Music)
Epic45 is the project of Ben Holton and Rob Glover, two childhood friends from Wheaton Aston, Staffordshire, England. The duo’s music bridges the gap between bedroom electronica, post-rock, shoegazer, and ambient music, and is usually built around shimmering guitars, subtle electronics and programming, and the fellows’ hushed vocals. The result is an ephemeral, hazy brand of music that’s the perfect listening material for watching the sun set against the clear blue September sky. Adding to the emotional heft are the duo’s lyrics, which usually concern themselves with childhood memories, youthful nostalgia, and homesickness — or, to borrow a term from C.S. Lewis, sehnsucht.
May Your Heart Be The Map is their most recent album, and their most fully-realized work to date. There are moments when the songs get a little too fey and slight for their own good, but it’s difficult to not be entranced by such songs as “The Stars in Spring” (here, gently picked acoustic guitars gracefully waltz with drum machines and beautiful, heartbreaking drones) and “Summers First Breath” (which finds the band musing “Church bells over fields/And hope in our heavy hearts/Don’t just sit there, look outside/Leave the house far behind/This world’s a mess/We’ll stumble through/Windswept and weatherworn/So much to do”).
July Skies – Dreaming Of Spires (2002, Rocket Girl)
If you’re talking about Epic45, it’s only a matter of time before you start talking about July Skies. Antony Harding, the main person behind July Skies, has often collaborated with the Epic45 fellows, and they in turn, have often appeared on July Skies albums, performed in concert with Harding, and remixed his work. July Skies tends to be more atmospherically minded than Epic45 — think Slowdive by way of The Durutti Column — and if Epic45 waxes nostalgic, July Skies does so even more.
Among other things, the July Skies website mentions, as influences, fractured memories of the 1970’s, abandoned airfields, endless childhood summers, dappled sunlight through leaves, post-war Britain, and 1960’s artwork by Harry Wingfield. It all sounds rather pretentious and navel-gazey, but Harding’s music is full of grace and poignancy, due in part to his fluid, effects-drenched guitar-playing and wistful vocals.
Harding has released several excellent albums, as well as a two-disc compilation, but you might as well start at the beginning. Dreaming Of Spires is Harding’s debut full-length, and is chock-full of songs and compositions that literally drip with nostalgia. Lyrically, don’t expect great insight or emotional impact — the lyrics are usually in the vein of “The rain falls on me/so gently/Ease away the pain/Of today” — but as a mood piece, as background music for that aforementioned introspective autumn walk, it doesn’t get much better.
The Clientele – Bonfires On The Heath (2009, Merge Records)
London’s The Clientele have spent the last decade or so recording and releasing some of the most pristine, yet overlooked and under-appreciated, pop music you can imagine. Centered on Alasdair MacLean’s breathy vocals, oftentimes surreal lyrics, and sterling guitarwork, the band is one of pop music’s true treasures.
Their music has always been populated with ghosts — the ghosts of childhood, of past lovers and relationships, and so on — and often skirts with ruminations on the impermanence of this mortal coil. But Bonfires On The Heath, their most recent full-length, feels doubly so. You might not automatically glean that from the music — “I Wonder Who We Are” kicks the album off in glorious fashion, with horns, an incredibly deft bassline, and even a flamenco-influenced bridge. But this is a haunted album, whether we’re talking about the slide guitar that drifts through the title track like a forgotten ghost or “Harvest Time”, where MacLean sings:
Bats from the eaves go shivering by
Scarecrows watch the verges of light
I hear a choir on the heath at night
But no one’s there
MacLean has expressed a fascination with the classic myths of Britain, and that fascination certainly explains the mysterious, ephemeral quality of this album as much as the band’s production and recording style. I doubt you’ll find an album that is both as catchy and hummable, and as spectral, as this one. Which makes it perfect, as far as I’m concerned, for the slowly growing chill of these autumn months.
Velour 100 – Fall Sounds (1996, Tooth & Nail Records)
In the late ’90s, Tooth & Nail Records exhibited a certain recklessness when it came to signing artists. How else can you explain a roster that included the likes of Roadside Monument, Blenderhead, Joe Christmas, Havalina Rail Co., Danielson Famile, Starflyer 59, Morella’s Forest, and Driver Eight? During this incredible time, the label released one of their most sublime albums to date: Fall Sounds, the debut from Velour 100, a dreampop duo consisting of Trey Many (His Name Is Alive) and Amon Krist.
Unfortunately, I can’t embed the video for “Flourish,” but you can watch it here.
Low – I Could Live In Hope (1994, Vernon Yard)
Glorious though it may be, autumn can also be a gloomy time, especially in the latter months as the air gets colder, the trees get barer, and the sky gets darker and greyer in preparation for the oncoming winter snow. And if you’re the type that needs music to pair with the changing season like a fine wine, then I Could Live In Hope is the album for you.
Actually, you could probably select any of Low’s albums — 1996’s The Curtain Hits The Cast would be another fine option — but I’m going with this, their debut LP. With I Could Live In Hope, the Minnesota trio led by the husband/wife duo of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker set the template for nearly every other “slowcore” outfit to follow. With ultra-sparse guitar notes and glacial pacing, minimalism is the key here, the space between the notes becoming as important as the notes themselves.
But the group’s pièce de résistance are the gorgeous vocal harmonies of Sparhawk and Parker. Uplifting and world-weary at the same time, the couple’s voices imbue their sometimes ominous music with a startling humanity and warmth that comes in handy when making it through the season’s colder months, even as the music’s tone and atmosphere often mirror the temperature outside quite nicely.
The Innocence Mission – We Walked In Song (2007, Badman Recording Co.)
Chances are, the word that is most often used to describe The Innocence Mission‘s music is “folksy.” True, their music is often stripped down, acoustic-based, and possessed of other “folksy” hallmarks, but that term might cause some folks to dismiss the group as mere coffeehouse fare and/or yet another bunch of wannabe hippies wishing it was still the ’60s.
Even a cursory listen to We Walked In Song reveals the group — the core of which is the husband/wife duo of Don and Karen Peris — as one that touches on something much deeper and more poignant. The album is dedicated to Karen’s parents, and as such, melancholy and grief floats through its eleven songs. But at the same time, there’s a sense of hope and faith: hope in human relationships and community and faith in the underlying presence of the Divine.
On “Into Brooklyn, Early In The Morning,” Karen sings of a “beautiful life, full of grieving” — a perfect summary of the album’s emotional and thematic tension. Which may make the album sound heavy and ponderous, but musically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth. Karen’s sing-song voice may be something of an acquired taste, but I find it beautiful and comforting, with charming little idiosyncrasies. And the musical arrangements, which often focus on Don’s intricate and effortless guitarwork, are the epitome of graceful — something that is apparent even in this barebones performance of “Brotherhood of Man.”
Hood – The Cycle of Days and Seasons (1999, Domino Records)
One of the most productive bands you’ve never heard of, Hood have released a slew of albums, EPs, and singles on a variety of underground and indie labels. And with that much output, it’s not surprising that their sound has evolved quite a bit over the years, from Sonic Youth-inspired noise pop to electronica that’s equal parts Anticon hip-hop and Warp Records. But their most affecting music occurs when they slow down and explore a more ambient, pastoral sound à la Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis. And of that era in their music, The Cycle of Days and Seasons is the clear masterpiece.
Personally, I find it difficult to think of the album’s eleven songs as “songs” per se. Rather, they feel more like sketches of the British countryside — or at least, the British countryside that I’ve always imagined in my head — created with the aid of lethargic guitar melodies, sparse piano notes, clarinets, oboes, and dub-influenced rhythms. And filling in the copious amount of space between the instruments are an array of incidental sounds, e.g., field recordings, snippets of conversation, and washes of static.
The result is an album a good portion of which never feels quite “there,” but rather, that a significant part is just outside of your reach, existing on the periphery of your consciousness. But rather than prove frustrating, it serves to draw you in even further into the album’s chilly, drizzly, and melancholy little world. It’s a meandering album, full of wide-open spaces and environments, and I find that it’s an album that, once I press “play,” I can’t help but meander through as well. I just need to remember to bundle up.