SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY: For All Together, Chris and Andrew took their inspiration from 10 early-20th-century photographs found in their home town of Philadelphia.
If one way that bands tie themselves to the past is through sonic reference — Fleet Foxes calling forth Crosby, Stills and Nash, or Animal Collective channeling the Grateful Dead — then there's been a number of bands who tie themselves to the past through cultural reference. Sufjan Stevens is still famously working on his 50-states project; the Dirty Projectors' Rise Above was an attempt at re-recording Black Flag's Damaged from memory. It's the album as specific cultural artifact rather than vague musical inspiration. And, on a smaller scale, you can add Pattern Is Movement's new All Together, which takes its inspiration from 10 early-20th-century photographs found in their home town of Philadelphia. Less directly referential than Stevens and less obliquely conceptual than the Projectors, the band use the photos to conjure small, albeit impassioned, moments that wryly connect present-day emotions with those gone by.
"We had written albums with a theme, either lyrically or musically, but never with such a concrete foundation," drummer Chris Ward tells me via e-mail, "and the photos created an organizational and holistic approach that helped move the record and tell a story without the necessity of a strong narrative."
This was before I could get a look at the photos myself (which are packaged with the album), and my attempts at getting Ward to describe them were neatly passed over. Like a photograph, each song on All Together is a crystallized moment. The narrator of "Jenny Ono" pines, "I miss my childhood friend"; "Sound of Your Voice" plaintively repeats its own title, "I just like the sound of your voice." Sometimes these repetitions stretch through entire songs, like steady reminders — lead singer Andrew Thiboldeaux often sounds caught in a euphoric trance. But the repetitions break down or modulate, and a tension emerges between the euphoria of each moment as it occurs in the music and the passing of those moments into memory.
Too easily tagged as math rock — a genre named for its overwrought rhythmic interplay — the band skirt that genre by adding hints of chamber pop (think Andrew Bird or the aforementioned Stevens). The melodies come from Thiboldeaux's piano, a mellotron, and string arrangements flitting around the higher end like chirping birds. Ward's drumming adds depth and prevents reliance on any one downbeat — his stuttered dynamics bring to mind the programming of Aphex Twin or Squarepusher. This rhythmic play both invigorates and jeopardizes Thiboldeaux's mantric repetitions by constantly shifting their meanings — a snare hit will emphasize one word (or note) here, another there.
Ward refers to this musical conversation as one between "angst and emotion," calling it "part punk and part gospel." Although the music shines with a certain churchy-Baroque quality, it's a bit of a strain to hear the gospel. Ward explains: "We have a background playing in churches and, to us, that emotional place comes from gospel music. However, we love the dingy, basement DIY scene. It's a wonderful synthesis: a crusty avant-gospel-tinged rock band!"
I wonder whether All Together, with its tangle of lyrical and musical restlessness and criss-cross of tensions, can be described as a "synthesis." Ward says it can, and he sees these tensions as necessary. Like the photos — where histories can be concealed or imagined — Pattern Is Movement's music doesn't seek "optimistic presence or despair-laden absence," he says. "Rather, the crack in between those two."
PATTERN IS MOVEMENT + ST. VINCENT | Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Sq, Somerville | May 19 at 7:30 pm | $18 | 617.876.4275 orwww.worldmusic.org