Magic numbers

The mysterious allure of 27
By BRETT MILANO  |  August 14, 2007

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DIARISTS: But 27 know how to hold on to their secrets.

During an interview at the Abbey Lounge’s front bar a week ago Thursday, Maria Christopher and Ayal Naor — the core members of the abstract-pop group 27 — were about to answer a question about the oblique yet emotive nature of their songwriting when, as if on cue, a couple of guys at the bar struck up a conversation about their favorite ’90s alt-rock hits. “I like that Stone Roses song,” one of them noted. “You know the one I mean — ‘I Wanna Be a Door.’ ”

There you have it: proof that you can love a song without being sure what it’s about, or even what it’s called. (The Stone Roses actually wanted to be adored.) Further evidence can be found all over 27’s latest release, Holding On for Brighter Days (Relapse). As usual with 27, the songs don’t reveal all their secrets right away: Christopher’s lyrics have a few layers of meaning, and the music shifts from live-band to sample-driven and back. Yet the disc holds together as a mood piece, with a general sense of loss and renewal. On the opening title track, Christopher sings in an attractive near-whisper against a subtle electronic backdrop. Understated as it is, the song still features a hopeful chorus with repetitions of the title that wouldn’t be out of place in a big rock anthem.

In fact, as Naor and Christopher explain, the song was written as a big rock anthem. “We originally recorded it as a real Springsteen jam — so much that ‘The Boss’ was the original song title. I mean, you could practically hear Clarence Clemons waiting to come in. And when we listened to that, we liked it but we didn’t like it, and we finally decided to try something different. So we took away all the instruments except the ambient bed, and we used the original jam as a template to build the electronic version.”

When Christopher and Naor formed 27, nearly a decade ago, neither of them needed to be in a guitar-based rock band. They’d already been there and done that — Christopher with the Dirt Merchants (who won the Rumble in 1994 and made one album for Sony) and Naor with a handful of heavy bands (Luca Brasi, Lint, and most famously Spore). Instead, the idea was to push the songs wherever they felt like going. In the past, that’s meant purely electronic tracks on the same disc as Crazy Horse guitar jams. “The whole band started with just the two of us playing acoustic guitars,” Naor points out. “We’ve always liked to experiment with whatever instruments we have.”

Yet the new disc sounds more emotional than experimental, with a melancholy mood holding the 10 songs together. The shifts from live to Memorex are done more subtly, so your ears don’t always register when the samples are replaced by live keyboards, or when the drumkit gives way to rhythm loops. The lyrics have themes, but Christopher — who was never fond of explaining lyrics, even in Dirt Merchants days — declines to say what. “I always think our songs are more uplifting than she does,” Naor offers. “There’s a lot of loss in this one,” Christopher admits. “A lot of personal things, which I don’t like to talk about — I’ve always been pretty private that way. Otherwise, hearing the songs would be like reading my diary, which I’m not sure anybody would even want to do.”

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