Originally published on In Review Online. Sian Alice Group plays tomorrow, October 9 at the Turf Club.
My first exposure to the Sian Alice Group was last year when they opened for A Place to Bury Strangers, and, much to my surprise, the under-the-radar UK band had no problem upstaging the hefty psych-rock Brooklynites. The austere Sian Alice and her dexterous Group had a well-executed experimental roar that stole the thunder from A Place to Bury Strangers. The biggest discovery, however, came later when I took a listen to 59.59, their debut fill-length that I picked up at the show: formal and delicately woven, their studio recording was more of a complement than a reprise to their free-form live rendering.
The band comes from understated anti-rock star beginnings. Rupert Clervaux was working as a sound engineer and music producer when he decided to get together with his friend Ben Crook to ‘dabble’ in some music. They eventually roped in their shy friend with the porcelain voice, Sian Ahern, to form the Sian Alice Group. With some interesting collaborators in their hip pocket (Douglas Hart of Jesus & Mary Chain, John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack and Brian DeGraw of Gang Gang Dance), their music is a mash-up of genres that never wavers too far from pleasant. Their second release, Troubled, Shaken, Etc., brings them even closer in style to label mates Gang Gang Dance while maintaining a firm hold on an accessible, mellow post-rock sound. But hidden beneath the veneer of carefully orchestrated pop songs is a flair for things more avant-garde, from jazz to minimalist music.
Much of their musical aesthetic, recorded and live, is probably the product of their unique way of working. The three spend more time improvising to find the structure of a song rather than starting with a structure itself. When they have something they are happy with, they record it live, and from there, they rework the track: adding, subtracting, overdubbing and occasionally re-recording. It is a studio-heavy process that is reliant on that initial—very non-studio—ability to improvise.
Able to shift between ethereal and soulful, Sian Ahern’s voice is the component that brings the band back to center. Without the vocals, the music seems to have the possibility of floating away, as is the case with the diaphanous “Airlock,” or snowballing into a chaotic fury, as in the mesmerizing two-minute heart palpitation “Longstrakt.” Her vocals are disarming and have a way of molding a song into a form. The opening of “First Song – Angelina” builds with a Steve Reich-like piano elation for almost a minute and a half, until the entire arrangement folds around Ahern’s soft voice. Her croon pins the song down, but only momentarily until the piano is let loose again to close out the song accompanied by harmonica and percussion. It’s beautiful and moving to hear how her voice works seamlessly with the rest of the music, and this is especially true with ‘First Song.’
All this talk of experimentation may have you thinking you are in for an album of discordant blips and bleeps. But Trouble, Shaken, Etc couldn’t be further from this stereotype of avant-garde music. Sian Alice Group never loses track of the audience, even in the studio, and they do a good job of keeping the casual listener entertained and the careful listener engaged. From the shamelessly pretty “Love That Moves the Sun” to the deep groove of “Vanishing,” the trio strives not to repeat itself. Gone from Trouble are the self-conscious formal contrivances of 59.59 as the Sian Alice Group comfortably settles between the two worlds of post-rock and experimental jazz.