Writing about music is about bridging the disconnect. No tone, beat or verse needs an explanation because music is, in itself, an explanation of sound and passion. It’s one of the more common conundrums a music critic faces: How do you illustrate something that is already done and painted? How do you rationalize with words and criticism when the sequences, notes and lines are already aware of what they do, how they work and the desire and despair they employ.
This is where I sit with Lydia’s sophomore full-length, Illuminate. In fact, I’ve been sitting with this album for weeks, flinging around words like cheap hooker shots. This is my third take (or fourth, if you count that time I attempted to write from an “altered” state) at giving Illuminate a shakedown. Through all these exchanges, there are a several points that I’ve been able to finalize.
- Illuminate is a full album, and not just because it’s eleven tracks and 15 minutes shy of an hour. The release isn’t about singles, but several tracks administer fine on their own (see “I Woke Up Near The Sea” and “One More Day”). No melodic line or layer sequence is quite the same, but they all work in a correlative pulsating atmospheric crunch. Beginning with the prophetic, tickling keys of “This Is Twice Now” to the expansive and varied 7-minute ender, “Now The One You Once Loved Is Leaving,” this album should be digested in whole passes.
- The most obvious spine of note for Lydia is in their musicianship. On “Hospital,” singer and guitarist Leighton Antelman starts off with distant, echoing vocals. The song glides into a dreamy stroke by Aaron Marsh of Copeland: “Now look, you’ve made a fool out of love/When all we want is to be enough/When all we want is to feel enough.” The line is of a different texture than the rest of the track, a story about keeping faith in a love that “still not quite the way it was.” The song is now a weightier anecdote, and it’s done in less than 20 seconds. A stunning moment, if my words will allow.
- The only reservation I can dig up about Illuminate is Mindy White’s vocals, which I find graceful but unmoving. Her voice is soft and small, and although it is graceful as a back-up, she doesn’t fire enough gusto as the lead on “The Once You Once Loved Is Leaving” to coo me in. Even on Antelman-lead tracks, her addition is a major thread to the Lydia fabric. For most of Illuminate, I feel as though she is holding back.
- The overall explanation of these notes and their tricks is in Lydia’s layering, which is a trademark and paragon of their musical thumbs. Every track on Illuminate consists of sheets and sheets of elements so that each song is like sedimentary rock, stocked with ideas that have been worked and re-worked to infuse and dribble into one another seamlessly. It’s another mark of the band’s musicianship, and it’s a lot to internalize. A listener has be ready to spend time sifting through Antelman’s breathy poignancy, shimmering, spacy and delayed guitars, and labyrinthine piano work. Keen production from Matt Malpass promotes this mazy and wandering structure, maintaining the complexities of Illuminate. Even so, Malpass keeps Antelman’s voice up-front and personal, maintaining the connectivity between lyric and note. This is something the band’s 2005 release, This December; It’s One More and I’m Free, wasn’t able to achieve as effectively.
But here is where my words fail to create an all-encompassing concept; there is so much here to consider, I’m finding it impossible to sum it up for you. The tone on the beginning notes of “A Fine Evening For A Rogue” are bright and lucky, but the song transitions into the piano-led chorus of repeated phrase “Don’t you ever get lonely?” The sampling and vocal backing towards the end of the song are big like movie moments, wavering in and out of down-trodden and hopeful accents. In just one song, Lydia flirts with several emotional tones. Take “Sleep Well” too – along with slight alt-country plucking, the majority of this track is positive with bouncy percussion. Then, during the last minute, the song is tinged with regret and recluse. “One More Day”, busting with a playful but haunting piano and guitar duo towards the end, transcends into darker human nature when it leeways into “…Ha, Yeah It Got Pretty Bad”. I’d like to quick stamp Illuminate, but I can only dig up musings and several spirits. For an effort that works as a cohesive piece in sound and melody, complete only by one through eleven, it’s an odd contradiction.
This is a huge responsibility for one release, something that I think Lydia handles very well, especially considering their small discography. Antelman is a remarkable frontman. The wizardry and hand-crafted delicacy of Lydia’s many layers are spacious and monumental, which turns Illuminate into a gorgeous record – an album that deserves attention to every track, every corner and every word I type in an attempt to justify its beauty.