Admittedly, I’ve done a pretty rotten job of keeping up with LN’s music. Case in point: Novel came out last year and I’m just now getting around to it. Needless to say, there are many others who are far more knowledgeable than I when it comes to this band. Having said that, it certainly feels like LN’s Gary Murray has pushed himself musically on Novel, exploring a wider range of styles and sounds than he has on the few recordings I’m familiar with.
Most people probably associate LN with lush, atmospheric pop — I know I do — and Murray delivers plenty of that on Novel. “Cars Must Burn” and “Stars Did Shine” are real gems, with Murray’s half-whispered/half-sung vocals slowly surfacing from layers of reverbed guitars, brushed drums, and watery synthesizers. “Stars Did Shine” is particularly gorgeous; Murray’s voice is as effortless as possible, lazily drifting amongst acoustic guitars and graceful slidework. The song has a breezy, autumnal feel to it, reminiscent of the band’s work on the aptly titled Cool September Skies.
Meanwhile, “Christmas Tiger” and “And The Angels” explore a more acoustic-based sound, one laced with country-western twang. For these songs, Murray opts to sound more world-weary than dreamy, and also pens some grittier lyrics (“This motel room smells of sex and the angels/That danced on your tongue the minute you took the pills”). Some similarities exist with Jon DeRosa’s Pale Horse and Rider project (another example of an artist better known for his atmospheric work exploring a more acoustic, country-fied sound), but thankfully, there’s none of the dry, tongue-in-cheek humor that hampers DeRosa’s balladry.
On the other end of the spectrum, Murray also delves deeply into the ambient side of his music with “Forgotten Ships” and “Ghosts in the Train Yard.” “Forgotten Ships” is one of Novel’s most beautiful moments, as Murray’s barely-there vocals and sad, sparse guitar float amidst a swirl of sweeping drones, bird songs, and other ephemeral sounds. On headphones, the effect becomes even more hypnotic and surreal, as if you’re taking a leisurely stroll through a forest where wind chimes hang from every tree. A gentle breeze kicks up, and your surroundings suddenly become a kaleidoscope of lights, shadows, and sounds as leaves and chimes alike rustle in the wind.
“Ghosts in the Train Yard” closes out Novel with 17 minutes of quivering, disoriented tones and swirling ambience akin to “Forgotten Ships.” The track’s first 2/3 can be a bit frustrating to listen to. The tones try to coalesce, but something always seems out of place, preventing the sounds from ever really coming together. However, the final third is sheer sonic bliss. Here, washes of static and noise gently flutter around the listener while vast, melancholy drones rouse themselves and move, sadly and slowly, through the song’s depths.
Although I’ve already described much of the album, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one other track, that being LN’s rendition of “Softly and Tenderly.” It’s the most stripped down song on the album, consisting of little more than Murray and Steph Halpert’s (Au Revoir Borealis) vocals, a fragile guitar, and the warm crackling of vinyl, but LN’s subdued approach creates a reverent and humble atmosphere befitting the hymn’s themes of grace and forgiveness. Likewise, the weariness in the vocals lends additional poignancy to the hymn’s words. Lines such as “Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling/Calling, O sinner, come home” or “Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon/Pardon for you and for me” have an almost devotional quality to them, as if the duo is singing for themselves as much as the listener, if not more so.
When I reviewed Cool September Skies several years ago, I commented that while I enjoyed LN’s music, “everything I’ve heard on [the album] is stuff I’ve heard done before and done better.” Having listened to Novel and noticed its continual growth on me, I should probably renege those sentiments, at least in part. While those who enjoy the music of groups such as Low, Bedhead, and Red House Painters will certainly hear many familiar strains in LN’s music, they rarely sound as good, and in the case of “Softly and Tenderly,” as heartfelt as they do on Novel.