A disclaimer: I get no joy out of being overly critical against a band I respect. And before you guys assume that all this came from a single listen, I’ve been spinning Familiars since the day it leaked because I respect the band so much; I quickly swooped it up as soon as it was available. I’ve heard it sober, I’ve heard it stoned, I’ve heard it as background music and I’ve heard it while reading along to the lyrics. If this album is a grower, it’s grown all that it can, and if this album is a show-er, then frankly, this album didn’t have much to show in the first place.
The Antlers were never a band with a wide musical palette. On 2009’s breakthrough album, Hospice, they employed acoustic strumming (see: the choruses of “Bear”, Two” and “Epilogue”) or slow keyboard textures (see: the verses of “Bear” and the first half of “Kettering”) through familiar chord progressions and/or shoegaze undertones. But the simplicity of it worked because it was an effective delivery vehicle for the album’s concept (which was, let’s be honest, the album’s selling point) and Peter Silberman’s voice, the main foci of the band.
On 2011’s Burst Apart – an album which I always felt was stronger musically, though weaker overall – they showed that they learned some new tricks in the two years in between, dropping the acoustic guitar and shoegaze stuff for trip-hop-styled beats but still retaining the fundamentals that helped turn listeners’ hearts into useless puddles in their chest cavities in the first place. Moreover, on both these albums, they did this while adhering to traditional rock structures, because you can’t spell “indie rock” without the rock bit (see: the second half of “Kettering,” “Sylvia,” “Parentheses” and “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” and I could seriously list about half their songs here).
Unfortunately, the three years in between Burst Apart and Familiarsshows they’ve learned next to nothing. Whereas there was minimal variety in between tracks of Hospice and Burst Apart, there’s novariety in between tracks of Familiars. Musically speaking, they took the horns on “Hounds,” upped the volume and upped the arrangements, and threw them fucking everywhere. And then, they went ahead and miscalculated their own strengths by delegating Peter Silberman’s vocals to a much smaller role, something that happened on 2012’s Undersea EP. Meanwhile the rest of the band are thrust in the foreground as if they had much to say in the first place. They ditched their ability to write concise pop songs and made a big whoop in interviews about how they absorbed Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda, Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (can we get more stereotypical jazz albums?) before recording this album, and … Simply put, they don’t sound like any of those albums because – get this – they’re not a fucking jazz group, and don’t have the musical chops to be one. Never have been, never will. And hilariously, all three of those albums rocked harder than this one ever dares to.
Some effective stuff does happen: the piano introduction to “Palace” is easily the band at their most emotional without relying on Peter Silberman (though it’s certainly no Jaki Byard on Charles Mingus’ “Group Dancers”); Michael Lerner – who I had always assumed was a program and not a person – slowly progresses his steady pulse throughout that same song which helps justify its length (though it could be shorter, as could every other song here); there’s an added noise on closer “Refuge” that sounds like a playground from a distant memory. But then you have to deal with the – er – “bridge” of “Surrender,” which is literally going up a scale and then going down that scale. Is this jazz? Is this the real life?
Another problem: the lyrics mostly suck. Sure, Hospice might have been a little manipulative in how it elicited catharses from listeners, but on that and Burst Apart, Silberman’s lyrics were effective regardless because they were direct; it doesn’t take a Shakespearian scholar to figure out what “Bear” was a metaphor for. Here, it does, because on most of these songs, Silberman decides to employ metaphors: palaces, dopplegangers, intruders, parades, questionably rape-y directors that say things like “I only stare / I’m a director watching you rehearse.” Sure, you’ll find some directness, but they’re always hidden away: “You will hate who you are / ‘Til you overthrow who you’ve been” (“Director”); “I beg for answers to all my questions, like ‘What happened? / Why’d you let me in let you in when I was younger? / And why’d I need to? (“Intruders”). The latter is easily my favorite verse on the whole album. And whenever Silberman drops an f-bomb, it never seems to carry the same impact as it did on “Bear” or “Two.”
To end on a positive note, “Hotel” is the most effective and affecting song here. It’s effective because a) there’s a bass bed that a lot of other songs on Familiars could have benefitted from; b) Peter Silberman’s guitar vaguely recalls the colors that John McLaughlin added to the Miles Davis’ records c) it’s one of the few times where Darby Cicci’s horn arrangements do what he said they would, “I wrote the trumpet arrangements as a sort of emotional antagonist […] In some ways it acts as more of conscience to an otherwise omniscient narrator.” And this is probably too personal for it to be written here, but when I first admitted that I was chronically depressed to someone I truly loved, I told her that I wanted to “check out” of a metaphorical hotel. And in that regard, the song is affecting because it’s the only time on the album where Silberman’s new penchant for vague metaphors works.
I’m going to listen to In a Silent Way now.