All at Once
t’s always somehow more rewarding to see muscles on a small body than on a big one because they disrupt your expectations. I remember not noticing my younger brother’s size—6”2’, probably around 240 pounds—until he started to lose his muscles; he was physically homogenous. So when I saw Young People’s last album, 2003’s War Prayers, sitting on my friend Wendy’s shelf next to half a thousand other similar-looking indie rock bands—one girl: cute as a freshly-hatched bird, two guys: gawky, unshaven—I didn’t expect the sound too boom like it did: trim, tough, and troubled. And of course, there were three people in the band. As I’ve said in the past, I’ve got a broad, tender pink spot for trios. War Prayers took the narcotic sprawl of Cat Power or the Cowboy Junkies’ southwestern myths, countered it with a tight, unified energy that reminded me of the Slits or the Raincoats, and still found room to incorporate feedback acrobatics and hot-jazz flourishes. They were working with antithetical elements, but you’ve got to play with fire before you can steal it I guess.
All at Once, their third full-length, sheds guitarist Jeff Rosenburg and leaves the duo of Katie Eastburn (on guitar and vocals) and Jarrett Silberman (on drums). It’s not only my spiritual bias towards trios that leads me to say that it’s not as strong as their previous albums, it’s that on War Prayers, the band had chemistry, and now, they don’t. Chemistry will, I suspect, sound like awkward and hackneyed grounds for praise. But that’s the point—it beats rhetoric like rock a set of scissors, so that’s all you can rightfully say on the subject. All at Once, then, is a pretty subdued album, playing up the opaque, alt-makeout side of the band; it’s several shades of bruise where War Prayers was sepia accented with flying sparks. It’s tough, because their new skin doesn’t fit just right, or maybe it’s that it’s actually their old skin and they’re just trying to fit two lone bodies into an expanse that once held three (and again, even that seemed like a feat).
Eastburn’s vocals still take up a surprising amount of space, but while the band’s previous albums highlighted her emotional depth—at once a tiny, tough, shitkicking teenager tying a raft together out of twine and popsicle sticks, and a coo through the crack her bedroom doorway—this time around she sounds more insular, more timid. Sometimes, the effect is hypnotic, other times, it’s just lethargic. It doesn’t help that the strong country and blues-influenced melodic sensibility that helped make their arty songs earthy has been traded for something less grounded and evocative, something less memorable overall. Young People spark adjectives like “spartan,” and while I was first tempted to say that All at Once is even more minimal than their previous albums—a sensible thing to say given their downsizing—it’s actually denser. It just does less; the Exponential Growth Phenomenon, a sub-idea of the Trio Theory, falls out.
It’s always hard to talk about when an interesting band takes a dip. All at Once is still challenging, but it’s a challenge without much reward. And while it’s easy to imagine that Young People could acclimate themselves to being a duo and make a record with the presence of their first two albums even if they’re changing their style a little, they just haven’t done it yet. But there’s more than one way to make a bomb in the basement and hey, my brother lost weight and got his muscles back, so I’m willing to give Young People some time.
Listen to “R & R” from All at Once here.