L'altra: Different Days
Different Days seemingly finds Chicago's L'altra (“the feminine other” in Italian) primed for a major breakthrough. Consider: it's the group's third album, its first for John Hughes' (aka Slicker) Hefty label, plus production duties are handled by Joshua Eustis (whose own Telefon Tel Aviv impressed with 2003's Map of What is Effortless). Furthermore, L'altra co-leaders Lindsay Anderson (vocals, keyboards) and Joseph Costa (vocals, guitar) are happier now than ever before with their current 'group' arrangement: the duo augmented by a musical collective (Eustis, his Telefon partner Charles Cooper, drummers Kevin Duneman and Eben English, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and horn arranger Nate Wolcott) as opposed to the 'democratic band' concept they ultimately deemed unworkable by the time they'd finished their second album. And as Anderson was a key vocal presence on the last Telefon Tel Aviv and Slicker (We All Have a Plan) projects, everyone must have been comfortable during the studio sessions. Everything about the project, then, indicates ideal conditions for catapulting L'altra to a higher level.
On Different Days, the group refines its lush, romantic sound by more strongly focusing on song structures compared to past outings (2000's Music of a Sinking Occasion and 2002's In the Afternoon). While the group is sometimes described as an electronic band, the label is misleading; L'altra produces melancholy pop which balances electronic programming and beats with conventional instruments like guitar, piano, and drums. The group's wistful sound is rooted in Anderson and Costa's personal history, given that they were partners for seven years before breaking up during the recording of their debut.
The album begins powerfully with a model of construction, the hypnotic “Sleepless Night.” Emerging quietly from a cushion of insectile electronics, the song gradually intensifies with the addition of sparse piano chords and Anderson's plaintive, intimate vocal until it erupts into a gloriously soaring crescendo—a haunting beginning and an album peak. A hushed Costa assumes the lead on the next song, “It Follows Me Around,” with Anderson's wordless counterpoint arching sweetly behind; the tune opens softly with tick-tock rhythms but raw guitar chords in the song's middle section give it a stately boost, and the elegant, gentle duet with which it closes is affecting too. But the next song signals the album's sole weakness: the seductive arrangement of strings and acoustic guitars in “Better Than Bleeding” is appealing, but the sluggish, dirge-like pace, now appearing for the third song in a row, starts to sound tiresome, the listener now hungry for more contrast. This fixation upon a singular tempo persists throughout and consequently circumscribes the potentially broader emotional range the album might have offered.
Aside from that deficiency, there are numerous delights. A slow tempo dominates again in “So Surprise” but when the stately chorus and its delicate melody kick in (“If you leave / Write back to me …”) followed by the vocal call-and-response, the effect is disarmingly and irresistibly lovely, as is the dense horn arrangement of its coda. The harder slide guitar playing in “Mail Bomb” offers welcome contrast, and the ballad “There Is No” proves a lovely setting for Anderson's multi-tracked voice. The waltz-time title track and “Morning Disaster” (with its bass clarinet and Sgt. Pepper-like horn elements) impress for the richness of their arrangements.
The impeccably crafted Different Days is at its best when it exploits the vocal strengths of Anderson and Costa; in fact, their interweaves are such a constant source of pleasure, one wonders why more groups aren't doing the same. Yet while it's inarguably a satisfying recording, had Anderson, Costa, and Eustis infused Different Days with a bit more of the dynamic contrast that distinguishes Map of What is Effortless, L'altra's latest would impress as much.