We tend to think of noise as something that obscures or confronts – either the haze that makes bands like No Age or Japandroids mysterious or the storm clouds that made Sonic Youth “dangerous” or provocative. So it can be jarring when one finds that A Sunny Day In Glasgow, on their very good new album, Sea When Absent, have managed to turn a three-decade tradition of wall-scraping audio difficulty into deeply enjoyable pop music. Where Cloud Nothings (for instance) offer gnarled tunefulness despite the aural whirlwinds that wrap around their weary emo, so that the band’s agile melodies seem hard-won, fighting their way to the top of a maelstrom, A Sunny Day In Glasgow have more or less become sculptors of sound, turning discord and dissonance into harmonic loveliness.
“Bye Bye, Big Ocean (The End)” treats this taste for noise like a thesis statement as waves of brittle static fall in sheets around hop-scotching drums and singer Jen Goma’s buoyant high alto. Built (one would guess) from the gloaming echoes of a hyper-distorted guitar and bass, that fog simply creates the effect of light beaming through stained glass, giving the whole song a dreamy yet radiant quality that suits its early 60’s girl-group melodies, its twee-pop sense of proportion and charm. When Goma’s melody archs upward in the song’s quiet bridge, surrounded only by studio-crushed drums, you find yourself looking forward to a new cascade of sound like the lulls in a midway ride. Like the swell of Motown horns, A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s aural monoliths become pleasure-center apexes. Indeed, when a quick flash of Supremes-esque melody lances through “In Love With Useless”, clouding with bit-crushing studio effects, that mix of static-y futurism and pop classicism grows even more literal. Many of these songs have the effect of a cut-and-glue collage, different layers and patches of ecstatic, brilliant noise creating an ever-refracting surface of electrified harmony and counterpoint.
Yet the baroque sonic maximalism of Sea When Absent works best when it’s used as punctuation or accent, and is less successful when, as on “The Things They Do” it appears to be the end in and of itself. But these moments are largely exceptions to the rule, and if anything, A Sunny Day In Glasgow are increasingly honing a taste for an oeuvre of airy pop that runs from Madonna through Camera Obscura to Solange. Indeed, the retro-experimentalism of Solange’s most recent album, True, is echoed by the light-hearted R&B of “Crushin’” (whose title already sounds like early 90’s electro-soul), a song dappled with rubbery keyboards and boasting a lovely sing-song of melody, with refrains like “See it in your heart” evoking a very specific field of pre-millennium pop music.
If a melody begins to grow ponderous (this happens from time to time) or a section turns hazy like a gathering cumulus, one can more often than not wait a breath or two for the whole thing to burst into a summer shower or swell into a dazzling field of gleeful noise. Indeed, like a more cerebral version of the bass drops that make dubstep go, you find yourself taken with the pattern of low-lying verses and skyrocketing choruses until you wait for each song’s lift-off, and marvel when, as on “The Body Bends,” a Belle And Sebastian-scaled bit of indie-folk expands like a balloon into something more celebratory, giddy, bright. When an actual honest-to-goodness horn section comes in, a bit of organic radiance amongst the otherwise synthetic landscapes A Sunny Day In Glasgow tend to build, the effect is wonderful, the aural equivalent of a finely tuned firework finale.
In the grand tradition of many a forward-thinking pop record, Sea When Absent is an album of parts. It is a collection of moments throughout which you look forward to the sudden blossom of a hook on “I’m A Wrecker”, the magisterial, swaying pomp that begins “Golden Waves” (the album’s final track, and its sheer high point) and the blankets of harmony that wrap its middle. You find yourself looking forward to these widened vistas and sudden climaxes even on a second or third listen. In that sense, A Sunny Day have just about mastered the pleasure principle of a certain kind of agreeably arty pop music, a tradition as wide-ranging as to have room for both Kate Bush and Postal Service—two influences at the edges of what this band does. Which is to say that the band’s indifference to formal definitions of “verse” “chorus” —even “song” in the ABABB sense—are besides the point. Their interest lies instead in sugar rushes and ice cream headaches—the scenes from movies you search out on YouTube like four minute recharges.