Know By Heart

“You and me/ On half speed/ Wild and free/ But quietly/ Like we’re supposed to be.”

The American Analog Set released Know by Heart on the fourth of September, 2001 through Tiger Style Records. I bought the record three or four years later after hearing a couple 30-second clips and reading some quick, enthusiastic reviews. I was going through a phase where I wanted to start listening to bands that none of my friends or acquaintances knew. That was probably my biggest motivation for buying this album. It was a silly idea, but it worked out.  I mean, hey, one of my favorite albums.

The first few times I listened to the album, I categorized it as an album of quiet pop songs with some bare-sounding instrumental interludes. “Quiet pop songs” is not meant as a dismissal. The band possessed a pop sensibility that allowed them to craft accessible and catchy songs without being saccharine and gimmicky. The dynamics of the album showed restraint. While sentiment can usually be demonstrated and even faked through the volume levels on each song, Know by Heart didn’t use tricks to create emotion.

Over time, I fell in love with the arrangements of the instruments and voices on the album. Frontman Andrew Kenny’s soft voice took on an organ-like quality when set on top of the backing harmonies. While the songs were simple, the layering of the basses, guitars, keys, and vibraphone melted together to form a warm sonic fuzz. From song to song, the instruments’ roles would change. The bass might be strictly rhythm in one song but play a melody line in the next. An organ could shift from soft background hum to the centerpiece of the next song. Sometimes, the vibraphone floated as an accent but other times it moved to the forefront of the tune. The elements never seemed forced. The band felt no need fitting every element to a song for the sake of the instrument. Instead, they let the song dictate the arrangement.

The titular track of the album addresses a vague You as a series of things and experiences that become beloved to the point where they seem infinite. The song ends with Kenney singing “You are a song for me to sing/ A string of verses that goes on and on and on.”  The album has that kind of magic in it. AmAnSet nails a sense of loving familiarity.  It’s like you open up a journal to remind yourself of time travel and read “This album is my constant.”

A lot of the reviews of the album equate it to various warm things. Fireplaces, sweaters, cocoas, teas, blankets, and even sunlight are used to describe the album’s warmth and comfort. Each analogy is inadequate or imperfect. The album does have a warmth but it owns its warmth. On one particularly cold day during high school, I found my car’s doors frozen shut.  After a maintenance worker helped me get one of the doors open, I waited for the car to heat up while playing this album on the stereo. The album did not make winter melt away or make me forget about snow, but it did offer a comforting pleasance while I waited.  Some days, that’s enough.

The American Analog Set released their last album (Set Free) in September of 2005. Andrew Kenny became a member of Broken Social Scene for a while. Now, he has a new band called Wooden Birds. When looking for AmAnSet videos on Youtube, I found a couple of the Wooden Birds playing AmAnSet songs. It would be hard not to bring those songs out. They get into you but not because the songs are repetitive and catchy to the point you cannot avoid them.  They feel good. They feel right.

Know by Heart helped me realize that things don’t always have to be loud or abrasive or overt or striking. The acoustic strums and organ chords presented a simplicity masking a kind of complexity of which I didn’t often think. The album also became a piece of my life. There’s a bunch of reasons why I love this album but none of them can explain the love by themselves. To paraphrase the band, it’s strings of verses that go on and on and on. They’re perfect. They’re worth it.

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