You don’t have to live in San Francisco to fully appreciate the Aislers Set, of course, but you certainly might be inspired to move there after immersing yourself in How I Learned To Write Backwards. For their stellar third album, the Bay Area’s premier garage-pop group has continued recording music that references local neighborhoods, streets, people and karaoke bars — it’s a world as expressive and expansive as San Francisco itself. The disc recalls a rowdier Shangri-Las in all their ’60s girl-group glory, packed with enough swelling, heart-shattering harmonies to make even Brian Wilson teary.
Opening with the catchy, clap-and-snap-along “Catherine Says,” Backwards begins just as its near-perfect predecessors, 1998’s Terrible Things Happen and 2000’s The Last Match, did. Soon, however, it’s obvious that the band isn’t simply repeating the same dreamy, retro-pop formula: From the chug-chug-chug of the heavily-reverbed rocker “Languor In the Balcony” to “The Train #2”’s raucous, punk-driven energy, the Aislers Set manage to remain faithful to their Phil Spectoresque pop style without covering the same ground again and again. Elsewhere, songs are spiked with gospel vocals, piano plinking and almost a cappella confessions for the band’s most eclectic work yet.
It’s a smart move: Whereas many of their pop peers like Belle & Sebastian have fallen victim to frustrating sameness and cloyingly cute twee traps, the Aislers Set sounds as refreshing and relevant as ever. And while the band’s shimmering guitar-pop sound is evolving, so is multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Amy Linton’s ability to translate day-to-day living into songs with emotional heft. On Backwards she’s at her poetic best detailing the intricacies and joys of life in San Francisco: “I pushed up over hills to the halls to dance with the Capp Street girls,” she sings in her drowsy, casual delivery, “where all the perverts and shy Mission belles converge.”
It’s probably not the sorta travel guide that California’s tourist bureau would endorse, but it’s a helluva lot more worthwhile and moving than a trolley ride.
E-mail Jimmy Draper at firstname.lastname@example.org.