Measuring up

Austin's American Analog Set is almost famous.


Graceland, 381-3094, $7 9 p.m. Wed., Sept. 5

LIKE MOST MUSICIANS, American Analog Set's Andrew Kenny likes to talk about himself. But the odd thing about Kenny is that he's equally obsessed with talking about the success of his contemporaries. He loves talking about Death Cab for Cutie. Over the span of a 40-minute phone conversation, the surprisingly exuberant guitarist and vocalist mentions the Seattle foursome not once, not twice, but four times.

This could be taken as genuine appreciation for Death Cab's music; after all, musicians are allowed to be fans. But on another, less obvious level, Kenny seems to be using Death Cab for Cutie as his measure of success—a concept that's still a little new to American Analog Set. Since coming together in Dallas/Fort Worth in 1996, Kenny, bassist Lee Gillespie, drummer Mark Smith, keyboardist Tom Hoff, and multi-instrumentalist Sean Ripple have squeaked by with minimal effort, touring sporadically, recording on a whim, and never expecting the band to be more than a bedroom project.

All that may change with the September release of American Analog Set's fourth studio record, Know By Heart. In the past two years, the band has developed a new approach to songwriting, found a new label (Tigerstyle), and begun planning its first European tour. In short, this Austin quintet is learning to take itself seriously; rather than idolizing peers like Death Cab for Cutie, the band is beginning to put itself in the same weight class.

"It seemed like the time to make a statement that said, 'We're not a local band putting out records on a local label and every once in a while we travel around for a couple weeks out of the year,'" Kenny explains, speaking via phone from his home in Austin.

"There was no reason to [keep playing] if we were just going to be covering ourselves," he continues. "We hadn't made the first record over three times, but we had stayed with the same style. We looked for ways to make the new record different as much as we could and still have it sound like us."

Know By Heart does mark a significant change for American Analog Set. Instead of the sleepy, underwater atmospherics that bolstered the band's previous releases—1999's The Golden Band, 1997's From Our Living Room to Yours, and 1996's The Fun of Watching Fireworks (all on Emperor Jones)—Know By Heart zeros in on the songs. The record's 12 tracks are concise, steady, and straightforward, with most of the murky instrumental bits and noodling jams pared away. Tracks like the tongue-in-cheek opener, "Punk as Fuck," and the vibrant "The Kindness of Strangers" seem as airy as wafer cookies. The mood is melancholy but not trite, and sweet, not saccharine.

Beyond that, the music simply sounds better. The band swapped the shrill modulations of its trademark Farfisa for a vibraphone—a shift that lends a welcome post-rock sophistication. (Think Tortoise sharing Bedhead's bed.) It's also clear that Kenny concentrated his energy on writing lyrics rather than simply ad-libbing during the recording process. His vocals are cleaner, and they seem much less like afterthoughts. (He proudly notes, "With this record, every word was in its last place!") Death Cab vocalist Ben Gibbard even drops in for some subtle harmonies on "The Postman."

But perhaps what is most impressive about Know By Heart is that unlike From Our Living Room to Yours or The Golden Band, it never slips into being background music. Instead, the new release sits up and quietly awaits your attention, offering tangible melodies and verse-chorus-verse structure on which to focus. The record's standout track, "Aaron and Maria," is a downright irresistible piece of pop. Kenny takes a skeptical view of whether this will be enough to attract new fans, however: "I'm not going to get my hopes up that a lot of new people are going to get into it, because as upbeat as we are, we're still not over the top," he says.

Despite his pessimism, Kenny confesses after some coaxing that he hopes he's in error about the amount of appeal American Analog Set will have for new listeners. He's fiercely proud of Know By Heart, and he admits that he wants to show it off. But that doesn't mean AAS are taking off on an extended tour. Kenny and his bandmates seem quite content to sit back and watch their peers drive the route to professional rockstardom.

"We don't have the stamina to go plugging it out on tour for nine months out of the year," he says. "Death Cab do that. I'm kind of living vicariously through them, because I'd love to be able to do it, but we just don't."

He pauses for a minute, then adds, "Besides, I wouldn't get invited home for Christmas if I was a full-time musician."

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