Amy Linton can thank her mother’s record collection — dominated by ’60s girl groups — for the unique sound of Aislers Set. The backbone supporting the obvious Zombies, early Who and Byrds (plus Jesus and Mary Chain) influences is a bargain basement Phil Spector sound, with familiar Shangri-Las backbeats, a liberal dose of reverb, a lyrical and atmospheric air of melancholia and layered la-la-la background vocals that drift in and out like the tide lapping at the shore. The former Henry’s Dress guitarist and Go Sailor drummer outdoes both her former bands by squeezing the Crystals and the Marvelettes into the indie rock closet.
Linton produced most of Terrible Things Happen in her San Francisco garage, and the washed-out sound reveals the indelicate touch of an inexperienced recording hand. Instruments bleed into each other for an indistinct swirl, like someone left a finished painting in the sun too long. However, Linton’s signature sound — reverb-heavy pop enveloped by her languorous, detached singing — is almost fully formed, and the muddy mix cannot mask great songs like the peppy “Long Division” and “California.” Unfortunately, her limited but charming vocals are often buried, as she hazily croons about searching for meaningful relationships and instead finding alcohol and awkward situations (“Should have known this kid would get a bit lonely / The drinking’s good and most of what a friend should be”). As uncomfortable as Linton seems with her voice and herself, she had the Princely gumption to play all the instruments on most tracks. Drummer Yoshi Nakamoto (Scenic Vermont), bassist Alicia Vanden Huevel (#Poundsign#) and guitarist Wyatt Cusick (Track Star) back Linton on only four of the album’s 14 songs.
The Last Match is better realized and more self-assured, with keyboardist Jen Cohen (Fairways), Linton’s trumpet, Cusick, Vanden Huevel and Nakamoto adding to the fullness of the sound. “The Way to Market Station,” echoey folk rock wearing a Vandellas bouffant wig, is an excellent introduction to the Aislers’ sonic step forward, with cleaner production (though still mostly recorded in Linton’s garage) and a more prominent role for her voice. It’s followed by “Hit the Snow,” perhaps the finest Christmas song that doesn’t explicitly mention the holiday; the toy xylophone doubling the central guitar melody is an evocative wintry touch. Such typical Linton fare is offset nicely by two punky vestiges of her Henry’s Dress days (“Been Hiding” and “The Red Door”) and slow laments like Cusick’s “Chicago New York.” Linton continues her quietly yearning, fatalistic lyrical bent, where happiness is usually tainted (“I’ll love you more than I’ll ever hate you”) and quiet resignation holds sway over true satisfaction. Despite a better grasp of the mixing board, Linton’s production sometimes lacks the finesse needed to blend a trumpet with a trombone or avoid the messy slog of “Bang Bang Bang” and its nosy, inappropriate melodica bleats. Fortunately, clutter seldom obscures the winsome pop songs.
There’s no sonic clumsiness on “Mission Bells,” a minor masterpiece on How I Learned to Write Backwards. An inverted “Paint It Black” riff morphs into a vaguely Spanish flavored guitar, which segues into echoey jangle that swells over four minutes into a miniature pop symphony, replete with hand claps, horn flourishes and panoramic keyboard chords. While Linton can’t yet fill a disc with should-be classics like that, the album’s remaining 10 songs are for the most part excellent: the buzzing guitar and “Jimmy Mack” hand claps of “Catherine Says,” the sad, spare lament of “Unfinished Paintings,” sly thievery of the Smiths (“Train #2”) and the Supremes (the words “your tender symphony” on “Was Esther Easier” nick the signature choral melody of “I Hear a Symphony”). Like the music, Linton’s lyrics exude a newfound subtle confidence. Although the songs are still largely draped in sadness, indignation displaces despair, enough for Linton to tell an indecisive lover in “Emotional Levy” that he has “two fingers in the air, two fingers up [his] ass.” Hell, a gal who can write songs this good deserves better.