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‘Ashes Grammar’ proves compelling despite potential problems

Andrew Hall

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A Sunny Day in Glasgow is not a particularly great name and especially not one for a band from Philadelphia; it screams twee pop and British indie, one which borders on the potentially infuriating and one of which is easily associated with boring guitars and misguided nostalgia. I’m also inclined to assume that people often make comparisons between their name and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” despite considerable differences between the television series and Ben Daniels’ music. The band’s first album, Scribble Mural Comic Journal, was a wash of sometimes incomprehensible, hyperambitious electronic noise-pop that hinted at good things to come more than it actually provided them. Through touring and between albums, the band’s lineup swelled from composer Ben Daniels and his sisters, Lauren and Robin, to a seven-piece, and this lineup, minus Lauren Daniels, assembled Ashes Grammar, a followup that takes everything compelling about Scribble Mural Comic Journal and makes it larger, prettier and infinitely more hypnotic.

Ashes Grammar is not a song-friendly album. There are songs, certainly, but rarely are there clear points of division between them, and at over 60 minutes and 22 tracks, picking moments out without meticulously watching track lengths can be difficult. The album’s first two tracks consist of 53 seconds of vocal harmonies, the first rhythm instruments come in not until the third, and the two don’t meet until a minute into that song, and only for a brief moment. “Failure,” the album’s fourth track and third minute, is where things start to get interesting; a tom-heavy drum part announces that something’s moving as several overlaid vocals come in, but the second half of the song is pushed by fleeting pianos and guitars with not a second of backtracking. When “Close Chorus” pushes past its introductory collage, it’s a haze of synthesizers, oohs, aahs and gentle acoustic guitars and likely the most immediate pop song here, but even it refuses easy listening, as the arrangement shifts several times throughout to compelling effect.

Given how big this record is, it’s prone to welcome sonic detours. Nearly halfway through is a haunted, beatless track consisting only of what are probably vocoder noises, which then sets up the “Be My Baby”-quoting “Evil, With Evil, Against Evil”‘s warmth, and “Canalfish” sits somewhere between the two. It opens with a synthesizer loop that then carries into the next track, where the band actually sounds like a band for the first time. Whereas transitional tracks on records like these that so clearly don’t want to be taken merely as a whole lot of singles usually prove frivolous: M83’s “Before The Dawn Heals Us” and “Saturdays = Youth” both come to mind: Daniels’ attention to detail and his ability to imbue them with tunefulness turns many of them compelling.

Personally, I’m pretty sure that Ashes Grammar works because of pieces like “Nitetime Rainbows,” where I’ve started the record from several times now. It was one moment in the middle of that song that first drew me in, given that I wasn’t crazy about anything else this band has done in the past. It wasn’t until half an hour later, on several occasions, when I’d realized that I’d played the album through to its conclusion and found absolutely nothing I disliked, but also a whole lot I was quite fond of, that I was finally sold on Daniels as a composer, or on A Sunny Day in Glasgow as a band. And now I’m fairly certain that they’re responsible for one of the least generic dream pop records in some time, which is a rare feat.

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‘Ashes Grammar’ proves compelling despite potential problems