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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1622

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The Autumn Defense: Once Around
by George Graham

(Yep Roc 2229 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/15/2010)

A lot of factors combined some forty or so years ago to result in music that became profoundly influential. The many changes going on in the social sphere certainly found their way into the music, manifesting in a desire to try new things. And there was the fact that the large bubble of Baby Boomers were reaching the times in their lives when their musical tastes were forming -- something which we are still experiencing as the commercial media uses that fact to try to market to that generation, and hence we have so much music from just a few short years dominating so-called classic rock radio, as if nothing ever happened musically in those four decades since.

The enormous popularity of the Beatles was a factor in setting the direction for some of the more memorable music to come from that era. In a way it was a result of a series of circumstances: Beatles had stopped touring and thus devoted themselves, as no major rock band had previously, to recording exclusively, and doing that in the presence of an enormously talented and musically adept producer George Martin. The Beatles themselves all were keen to experiment with music, as they had in other ways. The technology of the studio was making more things possible, but it still required the use of traditional instruments. Doing the all the sonic things the Beatles did in the Sergeant Peppers era required a lot of work and creativity, and one often was left with the artifacts of the process, the quirks of which became an integral part of the sound.

All of that is a rather dry explanation for why such music has become iconic, though it is rather interesting to think about it those terms. In any case, the ubiquity of that sound still on the media, and its underlying creativity, and often-painstaking craft, has been attracting an almost continuous stream of musicians from successive generations to a Beatles-inspired sound.

This week we have a new recording from a group who have captured the spirit, musical texture and craftsmanship of the late 1960s Beatles and their contemporaries. The band is called the Autumn Defense, and their new recording, their fourth release, is titled Once Around.

The Autumn Defense has been around now for 10 years, intermittently. It's actually a side project by two of the members of the Grammy-winning roots rock band Wilco, John Stirratt and Patrick Sansone. They released their debut recording The Green Hour in 2000, before Sansone had joined Wilco, and made it available on vinyl LP in 2000, as they did their following release Circles in 2003. There followed an EP the same year, and an eponymous CD in 2007. At first, it was mainly Stirratt doing most of the music with Sansone who had worked with Joseph Arthur and Josh Rouse among others, doing the production. But gradually Sansone has been assuming a larger musical role, and this CD is about half-and-half the work of each. After their 2007 release, The Autumn Defense lay fallow for a while, until Stirratt and Sansone were in New Zealand with Wilco for a multi-artist charity album. While they were there, they began writing more songs and that led to the new release, on which there is now an official third member, drummer Greg Wieczorek.

There are many bands doing various flavors of Beatles-inspired music, but the Autumn Defense on their new release, has created one of the most attractive and edifying. There is a lot of respect and authenticity with the sound, but without obvious stolen licks or overdoing the sonic nostalgia, as many have done. The impressive thing about this recording is the attention to the kind of craftsmanship that marked the best music of 40 years ago. The songs are melodic and hummable, but have interesting twists and clever harmonic shifts. The vocals are clear, but not laden with dense harmonies, and are virtually free of the studio effects common these days. There are a few little human imperfections left in to show the lack of any digital pitch correction. The instruments are all period. No synthesizers or sampled drums, and bits of historical exotica like running the guitar through a rotating organ speaker cabinet as George Harrison and others did back in the day, as well as a 12-string electric guitar evoking Roger McGuinn and the Byrds. There is a small string section in spots, and old fashioned orchestral percussion as well. The lyrics are basically a series of love songs of various descriptions, along the lines of what the Beatles did.

The result is an album that should appeal of Baby Boomers as well as the college-aged set with whom a number of bands inspired by the same sound have found an audience.

The CD is arranged with Stirratt's and Sansone's songs alternating, though they collaborate in the writing of several pieces. Generally Stirratt's songs tend to be folkier while Sansone's have the kind of baroque pop sound with melodic twists and turns.

Leading off is one of Sansone's songs, Back of My Mind, which nicely illustrates the skillful mix of retro texture and imagination that the marks The Autumn Defense. <<>> The group brings in John Pirrucello to do a slide guitar solo that channels George Harrison. <<>>

A joint composition by Stirratt and Sansone is Allow Me, with Stirratt doing the lead vocal. The more laid-back song features a one-man string section, with three instruments played by Chris Carmichael. <<>>

Tell Me What You Want is one of the highlights of the album. It's by Patrick Sansone, and its somewhat folky sound features great composing that combines a hummable tune with some clever musical twists. <<>>

The group gets even folkier on Huntington Fair, another joint composition with Stirratt doing the lead vocals. The rather casual-sounding vocal is a counterbalance to the notion that this is music that was carefully constructed in the studio. <<>>

To show that these Chicagoans are Anglophiles, the CD includes a Patrick Sansone song called The Swallows of London Town, another nicely done retro-sounding song with some 12-string electric guitar sound that evokes the Byrds. <<>>

The title track Once Around, by Sansone is a kind of atmospheric rumination that runs over six minutes, though it hardly seems that long. It's another nicely done piece that evokes some of the music from the psychedelic era. <<>>

While the Beatles are a kind of underlying influence to The Autumn Defense, most of time it's fairly subtle. A Patrick Sansone tune called Don't Know does not hide its homage to the early Fab Four's laid-back side. <<>>

The CD ends with one of its more easy-going and appealing song, a joint Sansone-Stirratt composition titled There Will Always Be a Way. It's one of those lazy summer day songs of undying love. <<>>

Music for a lazy summer day is perhaps a good description of Once Around, the new CD from The Autumn Defense. The 10-year-old Chicago-based association formed by two of the members of Wilco is one of many that have been turning to the late 1960s-era Beatles and their cohorts as sources of inspiration. This is one of the best in a while. They strike just the right balance between authenticity of sound and approach without being slavishly imitative. There is a kind of laid-back easy-going quality to the music, even though it's very well-crafted and produced. The writing is first-rate, and vocals are quite appealing, even though there is not a great deal of emphasis on harmonies.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-Minus. Though the production is outstanding, the sonic clarity is not as good it could have been. A slightly airier sound would have been better in keeping with the mood of the music. Dynamic range could have been better, too, with less compression.

If one wants to evoke the feeling of that period of abundant musical creativity from some 40 plus years ago, one could listen to the same-old same-old yet again, or take in some creative new music from artists really get it right. I definitely recommend the latter, especially in the form of The Autumn Defense.

(c) Copyright 2010 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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