AEM102 Shai Erlichman

Everything about Shai Erlichman’s latest release, the Season Of Increasing Light EP, is suffused with dreamy, warm light, like a washed out old photograph of someone backlit by the sun in a forgotten summertime living room. From the title to the hopeful lyrics to the spacious open arrangements and generous (but not too generous) reverb, the EP’s four songs glitter with warmth and an energy that remains simultaneously relaxed and controlled. Recorded live in a room (more bands do this please) by Greg Beson of Manners at the Whitehaus art collective in Jamaica Plain, MA, these recordings are one of the best examples of matching aural texture to songwriting that I’ve ever heard. The muted, mallet-struck drums (Mickey O’Hara) and gently reverbed guitars and keys (Jake Estner & Adam Coggeshall, respectively) provide a perfectly expansive, airy backdrop for Erlichman’s songs, which are catchy and harmonious, like all great pop songs, but rigorously minimal and stripped down to their absolute cores. The spacious feeling this minimalism imparts to the songs is crucial to their relaxed, sun-faded beauty, and contrary to what you might think, making music this simple and beautiful is incredibly difficult.

(Note: the descriptors in this piece might call to mind a lot of recent blog-hyped, lo-fi, summery rock music; think of Erlichman’s music as what those bands would sound like if you could actually hear their songs through the cavernous reverb…and if they wrote good songs).

With that lo-fi crowd Erlichman shares an admirable lack of overblown or maudlin moments, but unlike the sloppy looseness of those bands, nothing on this recording is extraneous or without intent. He uses a dynamic trick I’ve seen a number of times lately (most effectively and recently in Twin Sister’s music, both live and recorded), and one I think more bands would be wise to adopt: rather than starting out at a deafening volume with everyone playing full blast and then attempting to somehow top that at the climax of each song, he lowers the entire dynamic and density level of his set to allow the shape of the songs to emerge powerfully and naturally. It’s so effective, especially on a song like A-side “Mornings When” , which starts out with a stark, droning five-note guitar riff over which a hypnotic and asymmetrical melody slowly unfurls. The first third of the song consists only of vocal variations over this riff (Erlichman has an amazing ability to generate endless melodies over the simplest backdrops), eventually backed by a gentle mallet backbeat and some floating keyboard and guitar drones. When the song finally breaks into a turnaround, it only lasts for two bars before returning us to where we started, building tension slowly and luxuriously. The gorgeous and brief climax occurs over a second repeating guitar figure, over which O’Hara’s drums play time only on the first half, leaving the second half suspended in shimmering cymbal rolls like dust motes floating in the morning light. It’s a gesture of restraint that perfectly suits the song. If the drums had played a backbeat over the whole section, you’d never have noticed anything amiss, but this gesture of removal is so much more original than any addition could be. It lets the song breathe, even as the vocals explode into a high, open harmony on the words there are and then slowly recede into a third elegantly simple guitar riff.

Erlichman’s lyrics, often composed simply by improvising until something sticks, are oblique and non-linear, as you might expect from lyrics composed that way, but they’re not at all throwaways. They evoke unusual and delicate moods, moods you never would have thought could be the centerpiece of a deeply moving song. “Mornings When” finds him sitting at his kitchen table watching the morning sunlight pour in through the window, having a simple breakfast, and it manages to express the wonderful pleasure of simple things like eating alone in sunny kitchens (encapsulated in the beautiful line I will sit and feel what belongs), a pleasure that is inseparable from its own transience (the line I will sit and feel what is gone). It’s a small moment that’s enormous in feeling.

B-side “The Season” adds to the hazy guitars and sparse drums a pleasant rhythmic tension between 6/8 and 4/4 (notice that the drum part often gently fights against the triplets in the guitar by playing what sounds like a straight backbeat) and a darker tone. Somehow, against the minor key arpeggios of Erlichman’s guitar, the lines everyone, everyone is happy / and everyone, everyone is needed sound ironic (in the traditional sense of the word, not the trucker hat sense), and something about the way the lyrical sentences never seem to end, running on and on and then trailing off mid clause at the end of both the first chorus and second verse, gives the song an ominous feeling like a day where the heat coming off the sidewalk is so intense it distorts the air. A lyric like the cannibal claws of super applause will have me reveals all the assets of Erlichman’s stream of consciousness style of writing. The rhythm of the words is beautiful, and while I can guess at what they might mean, there is something chillingly mysterious about the phrase that you never quite get with more straightforward lyrics. Like “Mornings When” , the dynamic climax to the song is brief (making use of that same technique I mentioned earlier): the words like a howled out up an octave before the song dissipates. Note the simplicity of Estner’s tremolo guitar here, which provides a minimal but essential counterpoint to the vocal melody, especially during the louder second verse and the final chorus, where it plays a gently descending figure.

The songs on Season of Increasing Light, like much of my favorite music, reveal themselves slowly and gently, over the course of many listens. Their restrained beauty and subtle optimism gets better and better with repetition. The other side of that coin is that you should probably sit and listen to these songs once or twice without sending that gchat message or reading that messageboard beef (or, uh, this article). It’s summer now; I advise you to load these songs on your portable audio device of choice and take a walk out in the season of increasing light. It’s the perfect setting for these delicate, hazy heart-swelling songs.


Mornings When

https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem102/01 Mornings When.mp3

The Season

https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem102/02 The Season.mp3