Upon receiving a mangled Media Mail envelope of CDs to review for this here site, I promptly shoved this record to the bottom of my ‘to review’ pile because usually I don’t look forward to digesting a double-album from a band I’ve never heard of. Double albums are a risky game, with bands throwing in everything they’ve got and tending to not edit out the weaker material. On the other hand, some of the best and most groundbreaking albums of all time have been double albums (The White Album, London Calling, Exile on Main Street, Zen Arcade, Blonde on Blonde, etc.). Even so, they are always a lengthy and daunting listen, but Austin’s the Channel sure showed me not to judge a book by its…number of pages.
Another former Austin band called the Arthurs broke up in 2001 and soon after recruited their own Brent Pennington’s brother (and solo artist) Colby to birth a new band -- the Channel -- releasing Tone are Falling that year and Personalized in 2004, and adding a couple more members including Brent and Colby’s sister Heather. That last record showed their willingness to let all five members share writing duties, and now we have Tales from the Two Hill Heart / Sibylline Machine which you could compare in setup to Speakerboxxx / The Love Below. The Channel’s two main writers get their own disc, backed and influenced by the same band. I’ll tell you up front they’re both pretty great.
With Colby Pennington at the wheel, Tales from the Two Hill Heart starts off with “Up on a Hill” and an Animal Collective vibe due to the acoustic base, drawn-out syllables layered to form the vocals, and glockenspiel entering later. Comparisons to Islands could also be made. But from track 2, “Wages of Death” and on, the album takes on a Silver Jews feel -- laid back tempos, low n’ lazy vocals, light guitar, and a little twang. “Olden Days” does have an old-days kind of sound, reminiscent of rollicking acoustic rock á la late-`60s Kinks, and “The Deserter” slows things down with drawled harmonies like good ol’ CSN&Y. “Achino” is another standout moment, especially its sing-along at the end: “Someday / We’ll be together / Yes we will / Yes we will.” I could go on with every track; they are all top-notch country-tinged lo-fi indie rock. I think you already know if you’ll like this.
The second disc, penned by Jamie Reeves, shows a more electronic side right off the bat. Weird synths hint at the Fiery Furnaces or Of Montreal, but as the rock goes on I actually hear more Ben Kweller. The vocals are a bit up in range and have that Kweller-like rawness and innocence I noticed right away in “Deep Silent Seas.” Islands (or Unicorns) can be heard even more so here because of the child-like lightness of the vocals and the great use of synths, like in the head-bobbing “Rapture, My Captain.” The title track slows things up just a tad, and while the guitar solo is bending all over the map, the rhythm section can just barely hold things together. “Under the Carpet” manages to make the weird meter changes in the chorus seem pop-friendly, and the synth and reverb guitar freak-out at the end is pretty awesome.
Tales from the Two Hill Heart and Sibylline Machine are 36 and 22 minutes respectively, so they could have easily fit on one disc. But the effect of a solid band backing two great and different writers and singers works much better separated by a disc change. While either disc is a good listen alone, they could be listened to back-to-back and would make sense and not be too long to bear. The Channel uses the double-album format to their advantage, avoiding the pitfalls many bands fall into and providing us with nearly an hour of outstanding twangy, synth-tinged indie rock, merely split in twain for easy digestion.