All Hands Electric
by Kevin J. Elliott

All Hands Electric is a label based out of the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn that seems to be going against the grain of the handful of no-fi based upstarts that have come to define the borough’s current nomenclature. While precious handmade CDRs and limited press vinyl is nothing new (though they seem to be doing it well), it’s the sound they’re making that has instantly them apart. Gone are the four-tracks and effects, the cheeky names and aliases—the All Hands stable is stocked with an eye towards tradition as if the Big Pink was planted in the shadow of uninhabited warehouse and condominium. There is nothing inherently hip about such a philosophy, but maybe being hip implies adding a bit more care, a smidge more time to coalesce, instead of clawing for ephemeral moments of up-to-the-minute culture shifts.

Remember when the blogging universe went absolutely bonkers over that fatally named Brooklyn legion known as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? Are we still fawning over the group’s awkwardly spun indie? Are the suits at Pitchfork still trying to perpetuate that this band will save the world? A lot has changed since that debut album (namely the lo-fi/sci-fi/glo-fi/beach-centric revolution), but it’s not remiss to think they paved the way for other like-minded urban musicians who preferred craft over cratedigging and dizzyingly chirpy melodies rather than sonic obfuscation, even if we’re not buying their records anymore. After all, as champions of do-it-yourself, they at least made that business model viable again, if not in a sense fashionable as well.

Illuminations’ sparkling debut See-Saw follows those guides, if only in spirit and, occasionally, the creaking wane in singer Zachary Cale’s mostly heart-spent vocals. Illuminations is a strange bird that doesn’t exactly fly in as a strange bird. On the surface they manage to balance that nervous, half-stoned, Brooklyn aesthetic with the baroque folkies that emerged from the Los Angeles Silverlake enclave (think Beachwood Sparks, The Tyde, All Night Radio) some years back. “No Hello” sets the table in plaid, still a suitable fabric among the throngs, and for the bulk of See-Saw, Illuminations juggle a comforting and straight melange of roots-rock trope. But there’s real warmth in lyrics like “cavalcade of bright charade is sailing down the street,” so much that one begins hanging on Cale’s every word. I’d like to think, though, that the dusty B3 tinkering away in the background, the blister gorging twig and twang acoustics and rye-soaked saloon swagger of “Clothesline Kisses” is just a front, and not even a facade, for what they really prefer to do, which is write big wide hooks and perfect indie jangle within that framework. The odd nostalgia of “Collect Calls” is reminiscent of when Pavement made frequent dalliance in kooky country lines and warbled harmonies. All bent strings and stumbling cadences, it’s blatant, but by no means a copycat.

While See-Saw plays perfectly normal, if slightly buzzed, what makes Illuminations exceptional is their no-fear strokes at epicness; the woozy into raging anthem endgame of “Rising,” the seven-minute tin-pan hymnal of “We All Say Goodnight,” and the constantly atmospheric vibe of “Laundry List” could compete with any lukewarm fuzzies induced by the globe’s current crop of stadium cozies (Coldplay, Kings of Leon, Snow Patrol). That might ring hollow, but that only means they deliver genuine pop songs through grand gestures. Unlike those bands, this seems in earnest with no self-importance attached.

Where exactly those humble intentions are borne is revealed in Cale’s solo album, Walking Papers, where Cale performs sans wardrobe. It’s nice to hear him fully dressed in Illuminations, but it’s even better to hear him hum alone. Somewhere nestled in the mountains where echoes of Dylan and Nick Drake settle through the fog is where Cale gets his inspiration. Walking Papers isn’t stark and bitter, it’s beautifully arranged with light sheets of pedal steel, and on standout “Stowaway,” bowed orchestral lilt. There are some ragged moments, especially on the near-spiritual weep of “Eye for an Eye,” and these would no doubt fess up for Cale’s preferred troubadour regale. The closer, “Kicked Awake,” is a truly elegant confessional, but this solo work is secondary to Illuminations. After spending significant time with See-Saw, listening intently to Walking Papers become second nature.

Consider this only part one in Primitive Futures for All Hands Electric. They’ve got another duo of artists recently released, but I’ve been too adoptive of these records to give them even a wrinkle of time.