Venice Is Sinking - AZAR (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Venice Is Sinking

AZAR (2009)

One Percent Press

It's all too much / But sometimes it's more than enough"
- Venice Is Sinking – "Young Master Sunshine"

Though the first few months were duds (why, Bruce Springsteen, why?!), 2009 is starting to turn into an exciting year for music. I've got a solid 10 top going so far that consists mostly of surprises. As in, records from bands I'd either written off before (the Horrors, Morrissey) or just never heard of at all (the Pains of Being Pure at Heart). The latter designation is about to get an addition in the form of Venice Is Sinking. The Athens, Ga. fivesome's sophomore full-length AZAR fell out of the digital sky like manna when frontman/guitarist Daniel Lawson e-mailed me about a review. I'm glad he did.

Here's the skinny, ninny: AZAR is one of the best albums of '09. It's twangy like a mellow Wilco, slow and jammy like Yo La Tengo and Lawson's got a soothing voice á la Matthew Caws of Nada Surf. The record has a warm immediacy. Tracks like "Ryan's Song" or the four murky "Azar" themes that run throughout the album are intimate.

The first of the "Azar"s penned by keyboardist Jeremy Sellers, "Azar One" opens the record slowly, pulling in more notes as it builds. Evoking a sunrise with its slow/steady measuring and gorgeous orchestration, it perfectly sets the tempo for AZAR. It starts off rather electronic-based before more organic instrumentation -- dig those cymbal swells -- kicks in. In the first of many excellent transitions, the track segues into lead single "Ryan's Song." Lawson and violist/vocalist Karolyn Troupe harmonize pretty dang well over a driving beat and ethereal guitar/strings/keys. And of course, it transitions well into track 3, "Okay."

Putting the "orchestral" in orchestral indie pop, AZAR feels like a classical suite, right down to its revisited eponymous theme. The album flows graciously; this isn't just a collection of songs bashed out over a few months. Yet at the same time, every song stands out. "Okay" is the rocker in defiance of the dreamy charm of "Ryan's Song" and "Wetland's Dancehall." "Sun Belt" combines slowcore and jazz for a rebirth of cool effect. Horns color the triumphant late number "Iron Range." The lengthy finale "Charm City" caps it all off.

Given how spacey the album gets at times, it's a wonder Venice Is Sinking showcases such strong pop sensibilities, not to mention good editing skills. Aided by engineer Scott Solter (the Mountain Goats, John Vanderslice), AZAR is tight with its 43-minute time budget when it could have easily devolved into noodling and overly expansive negative space. As is, it's a beguiling compromise. With a third record already in the bag, Venice Is Sinking has my attention for the rest of the year.