Just when things get boring and I can't seem to find a new band to thrill and swoon to, the universe will unveil for me a reason to keep on digging. I've been experimenting with guitar ambience and musical space for a while now, and just as it seems like my only options are shoegazer gravedigging or moving on to power pop, I get the opportunity to see one of the (unfortunately) secret prizes of the Midwest or any region - Early Day Miners.
Now, there is a bit of bias here. I used to work with their record label, as I lived in their hometown of Bloomington, IN. But that's where the bias ends. They might be a perfect fit for the wide-open spaces of southern Indiana, their haunted guitar lines echoing through a thousand cornfields, but Bloomington is too often a fickle mistress, and while it's nurtured them, it's never given them the due they deserve.
Their new album, The Treatment, is not so much a departure from their previous work as another angle. People (well, critics) too often mistake a consistent artistic vision for complacency, but I'm going to lay it down for you: while their records often don't sound dramatically different from one another, EDM explores variations of a theme, mining (ha!) the space between notes for as much drama and depth as the notes themselves. Sparse has practically been the raison d'être for this combo, but the new album adds an unexpected twist: pop songs.
As much as I love the band, I'd be hard pressed until yesterday to sing you one of their songs. There are tracks that I like, and the melody in those songs tends to bury itself in the whole movement and breathing of the song, almost as if each inhale and exhale were the melody. Beautiful and intricate, with songs gently shifting from one to the next, but "poppy" wouldn't be a word for it. Last night, the lineup was certainly stripped down from the 6 or 7 piece version that I've seen over the past few years, consisting of drummer Marty Sprowles, bassist Jonathan Richardson, guitarist John Dawson, and vocalist and guitarist Dan Burton, who doubles on keyboards. The first surprise was the rhythm section - what was previously a rumbling monster, all tom fills and powerful drama, is now focused, sharp and driven. Sprowles keeps things here tight, clipped, and snappy, propelling the band with a motorik sensibility, even if his playing is more complex. Richardson's bass, however, is the anchor of the band. Never dull, never calling immediate attention to itself, but holding the bulk of the clearest melodic aspects, these two click into a post-punk groove that wouldn't sound out of place on the first Comsat Angels record. A bass-and-drums combo this tight gives the guitarists room to move by remaining steady as a rock, but not steady at the expense of soul. Rarely do I find myself watching the bassist and drummer at a concert as much as I found myself last night, marvelling at the way things seemed to click perfectly into place.
But as a guitar player, it was the guitar that's always seduced me on their previous records. Although it's anyone's guess what transpired in the studio, in the live setting, it was Burton's textures that laid a bed for Dawson's stinging leads to rest on. While Burton had his work cut out for him (at one point he was playing his keyboard, his amp controls, and his effects board at the same time), while it only took some well-placed echo and reverb to make the ringing leads seem larger than life. I'm still amazed every time I see them that this few people are able to create the sounds coming out of the speakers. So we've got a tight, snapping, growling rhythm section, slicingly concise leads, and more spatial textures than you can shake a stick at. Now what was that about pop songs? Oh yeah, I found myself and others in the all-too-thin crowd singing along by the second or third go-round of most of the choruses. There was even a little dancing. In the same way that great bands like Codeine, Galaxie 500, and the aforementioned Comsat Angels were able to create amazing pop songs that almost shunned attention - the songs passing themselves off like obvious secrets, inherently understood - the Early Day Miners write anthems without being preening. Had U2 not desired to rule the world and remained an atmospheric pop band (and maybe traded in that blowhard singer), they would be lucky to be making albums that sounded like this.
So what does all this mean? It means that all the people who have accused Early Day Miners of having the sound but not the tunes need to ear their words. It might be a bit of a development, but listening back to the earlier albums, such as 2005's masterful All Harm Ends Here, all the ingredients are there - the band merely seems like they were merely choosing to ignore the poppier side for the atmospheric until now, acknowledging it's presence and keeping it on the shelf for later. Now that they've chosen to release it, it proves just how adept they are at crafting soundscapes: these ones actually sound pretty catchy.