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The Sunshine and the Doubt 

The Aislers Set's first album in three years tells a tale of illness, heartache, and Mission belles

Wednesday, Mar 5 2003
It was a Saturday night in November 1998. I was in a pissy mood; my girlfriend and I were fighting. Neither of us wanted to be at a show, least of all in the dank, dilapidated environs of the Purple Onion. I drank sourly in a booth, picking at the gum under the table. Then the Aislers Set took the stage. One song, two songs, and I was out on the tiny dance floor, shaking to the beat with the rest of the audience. Those floating vocals, that raucous guitar, the chunky rhythms and handclaps -- soon we were all bouncing like mad, singing along to "Long Division," "My Boyfriend (Could Be a Spanish Man)," and "Holiday Gone Well." I swear it felt like seeing the Beatles play Hamburg in 1962. The electricity of the performance -- the crowd's reaction and the band's reaction to the crowd's reaction -- was off the charts. When the Aislers Set finished its last song, the DJ threw on an old soul record, the musicians jumped into the throng, and the crowd went nuts.

There would be other great Aislers Set shows -- the June 2000 release party for The Last Match at Cafe Du Nord, a slot opening for Aussie pop icons the Go-Betweens at Slim's in December 2000 -- but nothing else ever quite equaled that night. As indie pop DJ events, venues, and bands disappeared like so much secondhand smoke, the Aislers' profile in the Bay Area telescoped as well. After a series of shows in mid-2001, the act withdrew from the local spotlight; in 2002, the group played three times as many shows in New York City as here. On the Internet, rumors circulated that the Aislers' leader, Amy Linton -- who'd begun dividing her time between S.F. and an apartment in the Big Apple -- had been stricken with everything from shingles to cancer.

When the band finally reappeared -- with the Mission Bells 12-inch in November 2002 and last month's LP, How I Learned to Write Backwards -- the results were decidedly odd. While there was still evidence of the Aislers' trademark garage pop, the outfit's new songs swerved from ruminative piano balladry to echoey gospel chants to cacophonous noise sludge. You can just imagine some kid in Topeka calling up his record store and asking if there's been some mistake: He'd wanted the new Aislers Set LP, not some strange experimental pop album. What gives?

"If I ever have to hear Talulah Gosh another time, I'm going to stick a stick in whoever's eye is playing it," says Amy Linton, seated at the kitchen table of a friend's Mission flat. Such a statement might seem a bit harsh, considering that many listeners see a direct link between the U.K. icons Linton mentions and her own group. After all, both acts play indie pop -- a style known more for its twee sensibilities than its murderous tendencies -- with healthy dollops of '60s girl-group vocals and speedy punk thrust. But Linton's never been your standard indie kid. Her first band back in grade school in Albuquerque, N.M., was known for covering Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train," and the act that brought her to the Bay Area -- the mod-punk trio Henry's Dress -- offered thundering sheets of noise, with nary a jangling melody or cute sentiment in sight. HD's "Target Practice" pretty much summed up the threesome's attitude, with Linton singing, "I'd love to see you in the springtime/ And I'd kick you in the balls/ Oh wah ho oh."

But for the Aislers Set's 1998 debut, Terrible Things Happen, Linton showed off a wider palette of styles and emotions. Recorded in her garage -- with 10 songs crafted by Linton alone and four tunes featuring the live unit of bassist Alicia Vanden Heuvel, drummer Yoshi Nakamoto, and guitarist Wyatt Cusick -- the record displayed an impressive range, shifting from the lulling sweetness of "Alicia's Song" to the punkish chug-a-lug of "Holiday Gone Well" to the surfy swagger of "I've Been Mistreated." Working with only her eight-track recorder, Linton seemed like an indie pop Phil Spector, her winsome tunes offering no sign of their modest origins.

"It was really exciting," says Mike Schulman, owner of the Aislers' label, Slumberland Records, about the first album. "It made me like pop music all over again."

Terrible Things Happen received glowing reviews in CMJ, The Big Takeover, and numerous indie pop zines, earning enough of a following to generate a tour of Japan in April 1999. Having added a fifth member, Fairways bassist Jen Cohen, on keyboards, the band then recorded its sophomore disc, The Last Match. (When once asked about the difference between her two groups, Cohen said the Aislers "drink way more.") Linton's growing confidence in her home studio, along with the combo's increasingly tight playing and Cohen's Vox organ, made for a fuller sound. Spin named the album to its Top 20 of 2000, saying, "Linton has cleared the cobwebs off the Pop conundrum and dolled them up in a perfect dress." On, Greil Marcus wrote, "They make dream pop feel as easy to make as a can of soup, and as dangerous: Watch that jagged edge." High praise followed in the New York Times, NME, Gear, and Alternative Press, and the band set out on West Coast and European tours.

Back at home in early 2002, the Aislers members all took two weeks off from work to record a third album, hoping to avoid the lackadaisical manner of previous sessions. "Because [the studio's] in a garage, people just come and go -- it's almost too relaxed," explains Linton. After getting a number of tracks on tape, the musicians packed up for a two-week tour of the East Coast. Unfortunately, the night before they were to leave, Linton experienced excruciating leg pain and checked herself into the hospital. She was in such rough shape that, when she headed home the next day, she had to push her car's gas pedal with her hands. "We were all worried because it was after September 11, and we're like, 'What if there's some poison that Amy got from a package of mail or something?'" bassist Vanden Heuvel says.

Linton spent the next month in bed, giving blood tests every two days. The doctors were flummoxed -- so much so that they wrote her case up for a medical journal. And then, just as mysteriously as the illness had arrived, it disappeared. "They still have no clear idea of what it was," Linton says.

But her malady had a direct effect on the band's forthcoming album. "If I leave something alone for too long -- it doesn't matter what it is -- it's just not going to sound right to me," Linton says. The Aislers scrapped several cuts outright and then stripped down a few others, cutting away the unnecessary fat. A couple more were completely rerecorded, such as "Through the Swells," which now has a ragged, sinister feel. (The original, prettier version is on Kill Rock Stars' Fields & Streams compilation.) Also, to get herself back into the recording process, Linton taped the playful piano-driven exotica number "The Train #1" by herself, and wrote the echoing, trumpet-riddled "Melody, Not Malaise" and the eerie gospellike "Emotional Levy" for the full band.

Likewise, the lyrics on the new tracks -- which eventually would be co-released on Slumberland and Suicide Squeeze Records as How I Learned to Write Backwards -- had a darker vibe than the Aislers' previous efforts. "There's a lot of religion in this record," Linton admits. In fact, the opening line of the LP, "I gave my life and love to Jesus" (from "Catherine Says," written about Linton's grandmother), is a rather unusual way to start an indie CD, considering how atheistic the genre usually is. Linton's always been an unusual lyricist, though: Her songs are like puzzles, either depicting the world around her in fragments or hinting at her inner thoughts with serpentine phrases. On "Mission Bells," it's hard to know exactly what "Hypocrisy has smashed that atavistic take on my commitment" means, although a later line in the same song suggests the record's overall thrust: "God forbid I lie here waiting/ While the Mission bells are ringing/ Ringing out over the city/ The sunshine and the doubt." Throughout the album there are moments of bliss -- S.F.'s "perverts and Mission belles" celebrating New Year's Eve in "Through the Swells" -- followed by scenes of anger and uncertainty (the breakup song "Unfinished Paintings," the bomb scare of "Melody, Not Malaise"). Linton seems to be wrestling with weapons of mass destruction -- both international and interpersonal.

Fortunately, she and her bandmates (minus organist Cohen, who went off to grad school last June) still recognize the need for catchy melodies, even when they're buried beneath harsh screams and fuzz-bludgeoned riffs (see "The Train #2," originally written for the Aislers' hardcore-punk alias, the Gift). And "Languor" may be the group's best rocker yet; it's certainly the only one with socialistic lyrics. Listening to How I Learned, it's easy to see why the indie stalwarts in Belle & Sebastian picked the Aislers to open their East Coast tour last year. "They are one of the best groups in America as far as I'm concerned," B&S guitarist Stevie Jackson says via e-mail.

And what of those fans who might think this new album isn't indie pop enough? "I think it's fantastic," Slumberland's Schulman says of the record. "I don't think it's all that different -- it's more a progression of recording."

"I'm so over everything," shrugs Linton. "I thought that I would miss my record collection when I went away [to New York], but I just looked at it when I got back and thought, 'This is so old news.' ... I just listen to Top 40 radio these days. It's fucking awesome. The production on these songs is just incredible."

So does that mean the next Aislers Set record will be all booty-bass rap and slow-jam soul?

"Probably!" Linton enthuses. "Imagine having that kind of awesome bass on a pop record!"

If anyone can pull it off, the Aislers Set can.

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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