Down by Avalon frontman Alan Martin writes about relationships with the wisdom of someone his age. He's in his thirties, and he seems to know that long-time love is better than instant gratification: On "Losing Ground," one of the sharper hooks on his Chapel Hill quartet's debut LP, Martin's the workhorse in a union, the one who wants to rebuild something that's aged from acclimation. But when the split becomes inevitable, he says he'll do what he must. The same life-improvement aspect shapes "At Ease in the Electric Chair," where Martin admits that he needs a better half. Someone else has "the master plan," while he still fumbles for a sense of direction: "If I knew how to do it, wouldn't I be there? If I'm so safe, why am I so scared?" he asks, his voice a perfect mixture of outer inquiry and inner ambition.
But ambition and anticipation are the congruent aspects of Martin's songs. He considers life and love with energy inherited from singers like Van Morrison, Ray Davies and Paul McCartney. Opener "Yes She Said"—a wholesome guitar-and-piano jangler—is a series of breathless do-you-love-me inquiries and affirmations to and from a late-night lover. "Canterbury Road," which may or may not be a sexual metaphor, is a nostalgic exclamation that looks backward and forward. Above quick piano bursts and drums that tellingly twitch in front of the beat, Martin sings, "You fill my eyes with every surprise." Martin's not a better-days sort of writer.
Down by Avalon matches Martin's outlook with its arrangements and accomplished playing. This certainly doesn't sound like a debut from post-graduates still learning their instruments: Built ground-up from simple rhythms and developed with tasteful guitar leads (occasionally courtesy of jazzman Scott Sawyer and producer Ryan Pickett) and Dan Bryk's omnipresent piano and organ flair, Down by Avalon is an elegant, precise pop production. The layers are simple and direct like Stiff Records perfection, and the harmonies are spare but like a distillation of so many '70s charms. It's rarely forced or hemmed too tightly (with the exceptions dotting the album's back half): Bryk's organ floods the gaps between guitar, bass and drums with gusto, and Martin's voice is always there to meet him, experienced but eager, two words that precisely characterize this energetic maturity.
Down by Avalon plays the first night of International Pop Overthrow at Local 506 Thursday, Feb. 21. The band opens the four-day festival at 7:30 p.m. For more, read the story.