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Radiation sweetness

The Twilight Sad's volume is only a surface



In an interview with British glossy The Fly late last year, Andy MacFarlane, the guitarist for the Scottish band The Twilight Sad, copped to an identity crisis. "We are still at the stage where we don't really know where we are in this whole music industry thing," he said. "It's not like we're a stadium band. We're not a lads band, like Oasis or something. We're not a scenester-y band, and yet we're not a pure experimental band, either. Obviously, we're noisy and stuff, but we write proper songs as well."

While MacFarlane likely didn't realize that he was offering a proper self-definition, the unassuming Scotsman was indeed explaining the charm of The Twilight Sad. On albums—they have two, each on British indie Fat Cat—the band delivers a host of moody pop meditations, simple verse-chorus-verse constructions obscured by smoke screens of screeching guitars and reverb-soaked noise. Live, the band hides the pop even further beneath a supersized miasma of guitar-adoring volume. It's a tight needle to thread, but the band manages to reconcile the unwavering commitment to amps-at-11 of their Glaswegian neighbors Mogwai and the bald-faced simplicity of Frightened Rabbit's profane folk rock. The songs aren't just proper, then. They're great.

"That Summer, At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy," from their debut Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters, is the premier example. It begins with a tom-heavy drum pattern and a stutter of shoegaze guitars. James Graham's vocals descend with quiet ease, repeating the lines "the kids are on fire in the bedroom" with increasing urgency. The heat becomes too much to bear, and the guitars burst into flames. The catharsis would be enough to satisfy most bands, but MacFarlane and company aren't content with a single payoff. Slide guitars have their way with the song's midsection before the vocal refrain returns, leading into a solemn, slowly evaporating dénouement. MacFarlane's ill-tempered guitar line collapses on itself.

The Twilight Sad—rounded out by drummer Mark Devine and bassist Johnny Docherty—aren't the first band to bury sugar beneath volume. Remember, volume is excitement, an enticing ingredient for any song that aims for intensity. The recoding industry's Loudness Wars, that trunk rattler rolling down your block right now and the inexplicable success of New York band A Place To Bury Strangers all point to its allure. But it's one thing to appreciate decibels for decibels' sake and another entirely to hear the knob cranked with capable hands. Volume can be a crutch, but when wielded by these Scotsmen it's a storm used to make any calm less serene, more dynamic.

It's only fitting that "That Summer...," the band's strongest song to date, happens to be their first—five minutes born of the earliest Twilight Sad jam sessions. Yes, moments of last fall's Forget the Nights Ahead came close to recapturing that magic. "I Became a Prostitute," for instance, momentarily nails both ends of the spectrum, gliding as it does between quiet and loud. But ultimately it lacks the immediacy of "Summer," a song that benefits from being written by a band completely unconcerned with its footing in some music landscape. Recapturing the blurred magic of those early tracks might clear up some of MacFarlane's uncertainties. More important, it'd afford The Twilight Sad the necessary assurance to again straddle a line that deserves and rewards such action.

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