One of the most overlooked albums of 2008 for me was The United Colour of Trouble Books; The eponymous debut of an Ohio three piece who craft little home made elegies using tape hiss, battered old keyboards and introspective lyrics. Trouble Books are intriguing in that it’s difficult to categorise them as anything other than ambient pop, and yet there’s nothing particularly pop about any of their songs either. You’ll find little in the way of neat rhyming couplets, verse chorus structure or even recurring melodies here, just occasional glimpses at fragmented versions of the latter.
Their pop tendencies are clearest on lead single Past The New Parking Deck, with it’s bubbling synths and vocal hooks it’s the track most likely to ingrain itself in your mind and demand repeat listens. Though pop elements also come to the fore with the driving beat on Tropical Islands despite the melody being obscured by scratches of poly synth. This melts away as fuzzy noise engulfs the song until it fades away with just a few chimes of light intact. This is something common to quite a few of the tracks, it also happens on Night Indoors and Ascending Kidney. Really it’s the ambient element that the group excel in and although these tracks might not linger in your head as much afterwards they are the most enjoyable whilst listening. The cyclical humming drones of Dazzle Ships which sounds like a patchwork of Hammock and Brian Eno is a particular highlight.
Whilst the ambience remains this album is far less playful than last years Endless Pool EP which flirted with laying brass and strings over the bed of heavy drones. It’s a shame, as to me it seemed with that they had achieved a perfect mixture of atmosphere and structure. Here there is more focus on the vocal and lyrical elements of their sound, the latter being particularly interesting. They’re extremely earnest both in delivery and content, lyrics tending to deal with very mundane situations in the hope they will take on greater meaning when paired with the atmospheric noise. This apparent on the likes of Night Indoors when Mike Tolan mumbles “when the power goes out for more than an hour, it’s hard to remember it won’t last forever”. Or on the gorgeous closing track Houseplants as Linda Lejsovka wonders where her keys are over a sprinkling of spectral harp. It might not seem as though there is much insight to be gleaned from such situations but it perfectly captures something, I’m just not entirely sure what.
In many ways I can’t help but think of the band as a sonic equivalent of the indie film movement mumblecore. Aesthetically lo-fi and crafted with heart rather than technical proficiency, by all accounts there’s something comfortingly familiar on the surface but always with a unsettling tide of sadness as an undercurrent. Much like those films, Gathered Tones seems as though it’s constantly feeling around in the ether for some profound realisation. Although it never really finds it, it’s impossible not to admire the intent and the honesty which is laid bare across these songs.