Remember when Brit-rock was more than an exercise in trying to write the most over-the-top emotionally fraught guitar anthem possible? You know, when Blur actually meant something more than “Song 2” (or what Damon Albarn did before Gorillaz), Oasis wasn’t a punchline about drugs and sibling rivalry, and Coldplay wasn’t … well, let’s just not go there. For some of us, Doves kept the banner of intelligent, nuanced Brit-rock flying into the 21st century, but the output was also a bit too intermittent. We wanted a band to come along in hopes of resurrecting that certain brand of passionate guitar rock that could fill out an arena, but could easily tone things down for an intimate evening in a dank club.
Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, Autumn Owls has answered this clarion call with alacrity, aplomb, and plenty of mood atmospherics. Between Buildings, Toward the Sea is a 12-song record that effortlessly combines the technical dexterity of early ‘80s post-punk with keening folk-pop balladry and the occasional excellent funk-lite groove or three. Along with the aforementioned Doves, I hear rich swathes of The National, Mission of Burma, and Hail to the Thief-era Radiohead dancing rhythmically, easily, and without a single missed step.
What I love most about the record is that the band never reaches for that clichéd climax – you know, the sort of overblown zenith that the Muses of the world have to reach on every single damn song. Instead, key tracks like “Unconvinced,” “Kiss The Wine,” “The Arched Pines,” “Patterns,” and “All the Lights in New York” ebb and flow with subtlety and understated emotional impact. It’s as if the band prefers to display its penchant for well-crafted dynamic shifts (whether in between or during a song) instead of its heart on its sleeve. The tenor vocals exist in this haunting place between a croon and groan, and two guitars take turns plucking out arpeggiated licks, while the rhythm section revels in syncopation, but still manage to keep the tempo locked down tightly.
A twilight mood ensconces the bulk of this record. As I engage these songs, it’s easy to imagine walking around the Emerald Isle in the early morning, taking in the purples and grays that exist right before sunrise, right before I have to face the day. Or to put it another way, Between Buildings, Toward the Sea is a highly principled album that features exemplary musicianship, a cool center, and just the right amount of a turbulent edge. The music of Autumn Owls exemplifies the beauty that can be found in restraint, a trait that too many contemporary Brit-rock acts have forgotten.