The development of AU over the past few years has been a rather interesting one. Beginning as the solo project of classically-trained pianist Luke Wyland with the help of various collaborators, they have developed from the Animal Collective-style avant-folk inventiveness of the self-titled debut, through the psychedelic brilliance of Verbs to the reworking of some of those songs on the EP Versions that came together thanks to their stripping down to core members Wyland and percussionist Dana Valatka. On that release you could hear a focusing of the AU sound, through a couple of guys with a real musical connection to each other. This wasn’t “stripped down” in the two-guys-with-acoustic-guitars-and-stools sense – there were still multiple layers of instrumentation and wonderful rhythms thanks to clattering percussion, handclaps, and a fair bit of chanting – but there was more focus; and that leads us neatly to the band’s new record Both Lights. Recorded mainly by the duo with the help of vocalists Sara Winchester and Holland Andrews, and a vital contribution from Canadian saxophone genius Colin Stetson, it’s their best work to date.
Still leaping around between genres and tempos, the intent of AU is signalled from the opening track ‘Epic’. Thoroughly deserving of that title it’s one of the most explosive openings to an album you’ll hear all year, with punky electric guitar mixing with Valatka’s drums (his work on this track betraying his metal background) to reach the first crescendo at which the earth rumbles, and cracks open, with Stetson’s elemental saxophone. On first listen it sounds like heavy bass or a distorted organ sound, before you realise that it’s the deepest, heaviest brass known to man. It gets even better as it builds to a layered and euphoric ending with guitar, keys and bright trumpet and trombone courtesy of Nick Sweet and Alex Milsted, giving the first of many glorious moments on the record.
The vocal talent of Wyland is often overlooked in AU’s work, which is a shame as his rich and tremulous voice is lovely, with ‘Give Up’ providing one of the record’s best examples. It also mixes well with Holland Andrews’ vocals: his bass notes providing contrast to the higher register of the female voice on the aforementioned track, as wonderful banjo playing takes us to the end of the song. Also lovely are Sara Winchester’s vocals on the appropriately-titled ‘Old Friend’. With Winchester being one constant in the AU gang, this track is a suitably touching tribute written by Wyland specifically for his long-time collaborator with the lines “Old friend, I’m still here/Old friend, I still care/Say when and I’ll be there (…) Get a hold on me and don’t let go”. That is part of a lovely closing suite of songs, bookended by the gently shimmering church music of ‘Go Slow’ (a partner to the earlier layered hymnal ‘Crazy Idol’) and the final symphony of ‘Don’t Lie Down’.
Before that gorgeous triptych, though, there’s the manic hyperbole of ‘OJ’ which starts on the dancefloor but ends up sounding like a 1970s Walter Matthau-starring conspiracy thriller soundtracked by a psych rock band, and the return of Colin Stetson at the start of side two on ‘Solid Gold’, a thunderous thrill ride across the AU back catalogue with both Wyland and Valatka going over the top with the instrumentation.
Both Lights is, simply put, a marvellous and attention-grabbing listen. Wyland and Valatka have discovered kindred spirits in each other and from this connection pours emotional and intelligent music. If you only buy one psych rock/avant-folk/jazz/choral record this year, you’d better make it this one.