It's my heart that's in the right place but my head that's in the clouds," The Glands' guitarist-vocalist Ross Shapiro sings on "Swim," thus summing up his band's peculiar pop charm.
The Glands are a rare thing indeed: an Athens-based band that doesn't seem to be influenced by any other group from the Georgia college town. They don't belong to the eclectic Elephant 6 collective (Elf Power, Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo) and their tight blend of pop and rock is miles removed from the loose jangle of early R.E.M. or the party-movin' workouts of The B-52s.
The band's eponymous sophomore album, released last year on Atlanta's Capricorn Records, is a glorious hodgepodge of styles, ranging from witty, intelligent pop to guitar-driven rock to contemplative folk. It's a friendly record, one that sounds immediately familiar yet is strikingly original and resourceful in its execution.
One of the first things you do notice on "The Glands" is its sense of spontaneity, a result, perhaps, of the band's roots in Athens. While they weren't directly influenced by the city's music scenes, the members of The Glands say they were shaped by Athens' easygoing pace, welcoming environment and open ear for new sounds.
"For its size, Athens also gets an inordinate amount of touring acts," he notes. "I'd go see free shows at the `University of Georgia` in this open field that they've long since fenced in. Great shows, like the English Beat and The Psychedelic Furs and Gang of Four." If nothing else, the small Georgia college town exposed the band to a multitude of different approaches to making music.
The album's wide range comes also from having a anything goes, free-form approach to recording. "We'll go into it with the plan to experiment until something good comes out of it," says Shapiro.
Such playfulness is evident throughout "The Glands," from the yawning violin in the coda of "Swim," to the great tectonic bass shifts that move "Lovetown," to the seemingly lackadaisical construction of "I Can See My House From Here."
Recording in and around Athens, The Glands used different studios and producers (along with Peter Fancher and David Barbe, The Glands are listed as co-producers on each track). "Studios have different ambiences," Shapiro explains. "Each producer works in a different way, and since our songs go all over the place, it's good to have no set habits. Plus, they're all kinda part of the band." The result is a surprisingly wide-ranging collection that shifts moods often and easily, constructing hooky pop songs and murky soundscapes with equal success -- and never uses the same trick twice.
Despite this all-over-the-place quality, "The Glands" is a genuinely cohesive collection. Holding all the disparate elements together, Shapiro's voice -- utterly devoid of affectation -- exudes a laid-back charm. Sonically, it falls somewhere between Tom Petty's matter-of-fact Southern drawl and Bob Dylan's nasal whine, but it also suggests such newcomers as Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue and Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. But Shapiro's voice displays more resonance and distinctiveness than those comparisons suggest; he is no better or worse a singer than the aforementioned but very different, simultaneously disaffected and completely relaxed.
Genuinely intriguing and sharply crafted, Shapiro's lyrics possess a conversational character that matches his vocal style. On closer inspection, however, they reveal a surprisingly elliptical quality, dancing around their subjects instead of portraying them directly. He's not telling, either: "I didn't know what Phil Collins' ‘In the Air Tonight' was about until Eminem told me," he says, "so I'm kinda reluctant to talk about lyrics." However, he conveys more meaning in the sound of his voice than in the words he sings, so lyrics remain secondary to the album's overall sound.
The opener and would-be single, "Livin' Was Easy," shuffles into a drum-heavy breakdown inspired, it would seem, by Pavement's "Summer Babe." It laments having to leave behind the simple pleasures of life -- "Why did I go?/ The livin' was easy/ I had a room of my own/ and the weather was warm." "When I Laugh" thumps along with a relentless momentum and some endlessly catchy backup doo-doo-doo-doo-do-doo's. "Swim," heralded by a short string intro, changes gear to upbeat Beatlesque pop, tricked out with a bubbly piano theme. Taken together, the first three tracks comprise a perfect opening: endearing, inviting and unflaggingly upbeat. It's not until the fourth cut, the beautiful, ponderous "Mayflower," that the momentum slows.
The Glands' live shows effectively reflect the album's eclecticism and loose approach. The touring version of the band -- Shapiro, bassist Andy Baker, keyboardist Neil Golden, drummer Joe Rowe and multi-instrumentalist Doug Stanley -- display a funky versatility, genre-hopping from indie to romantic pop to straight-ahead rock with a dexterous flair. The band members switch instruments several times during the set, with Shapiro trading keyboard duties with Golden on songs like "Swim." The result is a surprisingly fuller sound, built on a two-guitar battery of spacey U2-style arpeggios and a more dynamic rhythm section.
Looking older and more road-weary in his scruffy new beard, Shapiro stands front and center, but The Glands still play as a tight unit -- as a band instead of a singer with back-up. Besides Rowe and his gaze-inducing precision drumming -- truly a show unto himself -- no one stands out more than necessary. Instead, they channel all their energy into conveying the songs and their emotions.
Ultimately, such a rare band has accomplished an even rarer feat: With their second album, The Glands have created a small masterpiece of precise sound and easy intimacy, revealing new depth and detail with every listen.