2 out of 5 stars
Anathallo has to be one of the most appropriately named bands of all time. The name is Greek in origin, but in English, its translation is “to renew, refresh or bloom again,” and the band’s music is a perfect embodiment of this sentiment.
Canopy Glow, Anathallo’s second full-length record since its formation in 2000, features telling songs like “Northern Lights,” “The River” and “Noni’s Field,” which all paint strong images of nature presented in a liberating fashion. More relevant to the renewing and refreshing feeling is the sound itself. Gentle piano and delicate acoustic guitar parts combine with violin and cello arrangements to create an open and airy sound.
After the initial awe of the natural-sounding songs wears off, the music conveys an unmistakable familiarity. Anathallo sounds remarkably similar to indie-pop hero and fellow Michigan native Sufjan Stevens. Unfortunately, Canopy Glow is difficult to listen to without qualifying it as a sub-par Sufjan knockoff.
Frequent harmonies, an abundance of auxiliary percussion and the baroque pop-meets-high-school-marching-band feel are all traits that the two artists have in common. But where Stevens sounds effortless and breathtaking, Anathallo sounds forced and unoriginal, and the group overworks songs that should thrive on their simplicity and free-flowing nature.
Despite all this, there are a couple of redeeming tracks on the album. The aforementioned “The River” flexes its chamber-pop muscles with a well-crafted musical arrangement that includes clever usage of the mandolin and vibraphone to create a whimsical ambiance. Lyrics like “Rolled like a felled tree / With arms as useless as such / Death’s panic came, a calmness stayed / You couldn’t do much,” complement the mood. The song is focused and doesn’t force its musical ambition. “Italo” also masters a complex but uncomplicated sound, as it commands in a cheerful and invigorating manner to “Put your hands up / Pick yourself up / And you pull yourself up / Underneath the dugout cubby enclave of the sidewalk overhang.”
But not all the tracks have this sort wonderment. “Cafetorium” is an unbearably obscure narrative that connects the religious ritual of baptism to everyday objects like Cool Whip and drinking fountains. Lines like “I was still unborn / But I have heard the first hand … and the hearts thereof can be baptized in the heads of their own sweat / Salt rings like the outlined shroud on the tomb of your skin,” severely complicate the matter. In addition to this lyrical ambiguity, there are random and unnecessary trombone and trumpet interjections. “John J. Audubon” tries so hard to make beautiful harmonies, but the odd rhythm and abrasive drums take away from the effort.
With 2008 coming to a close, looking for a good “sleeper” album is a customary task for music fans. Canopy Glow is a sleeper in the most literal sense of the word: Heavy eyelids and uncontrollable yawning might be side effects of these light and vapid tunes.