For more than ten years, the Illinois university town of Champaign-Urbana hosted an unusual ensemble, one that seemed to owe a debt to the dream-pop experiments of 4AD. As Area, Steve Jones (synthesizers and percussion), Henry Frayne (guitar) and Lynn Canfield (ethereal, dreamy vocals) released a batch of albums in the second half of the 1980s before Frayne and Canfield moved on to the similar, if more elaborate, The Moon Seven Times.
In comparison with such 4AD counterparts as the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance (to which Area and The Moon Seven Times bear some similarities), the early Area records are sparer and folkier. Canfield’s languid singing floats over Frayne’s treated guitars and Jones’ synthesizer washes. With a master’s degree in linguistics, main songwriter Canfield sings lyrics that are thoughtful if vague, often using unexpectedly homey metaphors and imagery. Even if she sings as if she’s floating on a cloud, her words remain comfortingly concrete.
Many of the songs on the cassette-only White Canvas New Hope returned on later Area releases. Five of them are on Radio Caroline, which is dominated by Canfield’s gauzy vocals. Her hazy, plush echoes suggest a woman singing in a shower lined in goose down. While the emphasis is on atmosphere, the songs are impressively strong, with elegant melodic passages (“Head Above Water”), classy construction (“Michael Writes His Parents”) and artful instrumentation.
The excellent The Perfect Dream does build up some momentum on “With Louise” and “Surrender to the Wheel.” Glenn Graham adds limpid saxophone and clarinet solos reminiscent of Jan Garbarek; they appear quietly, then disappear just as placidly. Many of the songs are simple in structure, with hypnotically repetitive guitar lines and gentle keyboard programming. “Why Should I Worry” is at the intersection of early Depeche Mode and Loreena McKennit, and the keyboards on “Tunnel” are appropriately sepulchral. A cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” is a useful historical touchstone. (The CD recovers “Disappear Here,” “The Blue Spark” and “All About Money” from White Canvas New Hope.)
Between Purple and Pink is the best-produced of the Area albums and benefits from superb use of dynamics. “Brave Parade,” “Electroculture” and “All There Is” have a sonic depth that the earlier albums only hinted at. Jones adds rippling keyboard solos, and Canfield has a much more forceful presence (although no one would ever accuse Area of “rocking out”). The album’s weakness is the diminished role of Frayne’s guitar. Too many of the tracks subsist on keyboard and vocals alone, and the band’s use of these elements isn’t sufficiently inventive. “What Heaven Is For” is pretty and spacey enough to serve as background music in a David Lynch film, but not to stand alone for long. “Rail” is just boring. As soon as Frayne returns, however, the songs pick up significantly in complexity and appeal. The CD version of Between Purple and Pink contains four songs more than the vinyl.
Differences between Frayne and Canfield and Jones led to Frayne leaving the band before its final album. Fragments of the Morning, without his guitar work, is far less compelling than the three prior releases. Area broke up in 1990. The Europe-only Agate Lines compiles previously released material.
Canfield and Frayne formed The Moon Seven Times, releasing the first album under that name in 1993, joined by drummer Brendan Gamble, who would become Canfield’s husband, and ex-Poster Children bassist Don Gerard. The Moon Seven Times is thoroughly stunning. Frayne’s guitar work and technical skills are stellar, and better production values serve Canfield’s vocals (by erasing the echo and muffled tones of the Area records) and her best lyrics. “Your eyes are like coffee / bad brew splashed in the push and shove,” she breathes in “Miranda.” The magnificent “Her House” blossoms from near-silence over the course of the first minute to an engrossing swirl of guitars, drums and synthesizers. Frayne amps up his guitar significantly and gives some of the tracks a dense, gothy feel. The entire vibe is sexy and dangerous, while maintaining some of Area’s homey Midwestern imagery and folkiness. Straight narratives rarely emerge in a M7X song, but what does come through is the emotive force of the guitar lines, and hushed, wordless cries that punctuate many of the pieces. The songs are like Ray Bradbury short stories, with childhood fears and desires that lurk, half-forgotten, to tug at imagination in the night. In the relaxed “Paris Luna,” Canfield’s lyrics don’t lose their force: “Take my hand so I can let go of what they say / Let the blood boil between our skin as it won’t someday.” After a dozen listed tracks, there is a pause and then a sequence of four or five improvised half-songs that play up a warmer side to the band, including a humorous tribute to Canfield and Gamble’s cat.
7=49 is an embarrassment of riches, offering a total of 27 tracks, only 14 of which are named and credited. The new songs are wonderful, but — subtracting remakes, unlisted bonus material and “intros” — there are only ten of them. “My Game” is taut and minimalist, like a Portishead trip-hop single. Gerard and Gamble come out swinging on the rocking “Knock,” but the mostly acoustic “Guppy” is lush and lilting. Frayne’s rippling guitar is delicate on “Let the Other One Stay” and “John,” but rocks harder on “Knock” than anything he’d done before. “I’ll Gather Flowers,” an old Area song from The Perfect Dream, is stretched to seven minutes; “Anyway,” from Between Purple and Pink, is also reprised here. The artistic merits of the unlisted bonus tracks are ambiently negligible. All told, 7=49 is excellent but not quite the peer of The Moon Seven Times.
Released after a break of several years, Sunburnt is dramatically different in tone than its predecessors, owing more to the acoustic pop reverie of the Cowboy Junkies or Mazzy Star than 4AD. Trina Shoemaker (Throwing Muses, Sheryl Crow) produced; Jay Bennett of Wilco adds guitar solos to “Some of Them Burn” and “Through the Roses.” The songs are shorter, more structured and rooted in the warmth of country, as the title “Nashville” indicates. But there are other styles in play here. Gamble lays down some Booker T-style Hammond organ on “Some of Them Burn,” while the strummed “Further” recalls the Sundays’ languid pop. Frayne’s rippling electric guitar textures are in short supply; he’s only on seven tracks, foreshadowing the band’s impending dissolution. Sunburnt, which is concise by Moon Seven Times standards (11 tracks running 45 minutes), is an ambivalent swan song, with good songs but little of what once made the band so distinctive.
While the band was still active, Frayne released a set of instrumental soundscapes, Of Shapes That Haunt Thought’s Wilderness, on a Greek label; an abridged version of it was later repackaged as Lanterna in a gorgeous art production on Parasol. Frayne sings on some tracks — a quiet, languid mumble more than anything — and Canfield and other M7X alumni appear as well. Stripped of Canfield’s vocals and songwriting, Frayne’s guitar work resembles the space-age cowboy-western soundtracks of Wim Wenders or Jim Jarmusch films. The album and its thematic follow-ups (Sands, Highways, Desert Oceans) work best as ambient background music, although some of the tracks build up an impressive head of steam. National Public Radio’s All Things Considered picked up selections from Lanterna and its successors as interstitial music, and Rykodisc later reissued Lanterna with new artwork and an abbreviated track listing, but charitably left the final seven tracks on the album as unlisted bonus material.
Canfield and Gamble organized Shotgun Wedding, a loose ensemble which released one jokey album, A Big World of Fun, on their own label in 1998. Perhaps a bit heavy on cat songs, it offers some pleasing moments in a folky vein. “Nerves of Steel” and “Will We Love It?” are highlights. Canfield has since led something called Lynn Canfield & Hot Tub Party, which has toured but released no albums.
Projekt, the pioneering “darkwave” label best known for Black Tape for a Blue Girl and Love Spirals Downward, unearthed the long-out-of-print Area recordings for re-releasebetween 1997 and 2000. This much-needed re-release effort both paid tribute to Area’s contributions and placed them in a broader historical context.