You might expect a band named Grand Archives to be a strictly preservationist project, but while the Seattle quartet do maintain a certain vintage folk-rock sound, they aren't above forgetting the past—questions about or comparisons to singer/guitarist Mat Brooke's former bands Carissa's Wierd and Band of Horses are dismissed with understandable antipathy—or even abandoning an entire album's worth of material.
"We had written a whole slew of songs for this record that were really upbeat and generally focused toward a live audience, which is fun and all, but once we got it down on tape, it sounded really contrived and phony," says Brooke. "Like we were trying to be something we weren't. We made the choice to scrap it and start over from scratch, [and] it was actually really relieving."
The result of this scrapping and starting over is the band's sophomore full-length for Sub Pop, Keep in Mind Frankenstein. The record bears all the band's familiar traits—hushed singing and instrumentation, an occasional and slight country twang, plenty of reverb, unshowy but enveloping four-part harmonies—its overall sound falling somewhere in between the intimate, often somber arrangements of their debut four-song demo EP and their bigger, brighter self-titled album.
"When we made the demo, we really weren't sure if anyone would give a shit, and it really took a lot of the pressure off," recalls Brooke. "Then, when we made the first record, we were really going for a big sound so people would give a shit. Now, with this record, we kind of just made it the way we wanted and let it just be whatever it was."
Despite having to write and rehearse a whole new batch of songs while in the recording studio, sometimes arranging lyrics and vocal parts just before rolling tape, Brooke found the album-making process to be relatively easy.
"The recording was a lot smoother on this record," he says. "Just in the sense that we are starting to get a lot more confident with each other's playing styles, strengths and weaknesses, that sort of thing. It's becoming a lot more intuitive and less rigid."
It's a smooth-sounding record, as well. In fact, it's almost entirely frictionless—the brief record has barely left a mark on me after several listens. It begins with "Topsy's Revenge," Brooke slowly intoning over a few spare, low-humming cello notes and a simple, echoing melody on toy piano and guitar. There's a moment in the song, just after the first chorus around the 1:08 mark, when you get the fleeting feeling that things are about to break wide open, that the song is about to kick into high gear and at least mildly rock out—that's what might have happened on their first album—but then it just slouches into another pretty, whisper-soft sighing verse, building up to the gently insistent, harmonized refrain of "Some day I will come back and burn it all down." Following track "Witchy Park/Tomorrow Will (Take Care of Itself)" reveals another subtly persistent chorus in its second half, and things pick up to an easy trot with "Silver Among the Gold." From there on out, it's a procession of one way-understated chorus after another, highlights being the sun-downing slide-guitar-accented "Oslo Novelist" (which features guest vocals from fellow former Carissa's Wierdo and current S singer/songwriter Jenn Ghetto), the slow-aching "Left for All the Strays," and the funereal jamboree of "Dig That Crazy Grave."
Frankenstein sits well with a lot of the soft-rocking, '70s-styled folk stuff that's taken popular hold of Seattle these days (and, as is often the case with these things, was taking hold of other, bigger scenes at least a year or two ago). But, like a lot of this music to my ears, the album sounds great, gorgeous even—lovingly and carefully crafted, well played and produced—but it doesn't always pack the most memorable of songs. (Although, this is coming from a crank who thought the band's self-titled full-length failed to live up to the charm of their demo).
But if Frankenstein's all a bit underwhelming, if you're left wondering what might have been had the band not ditched those apparently more rocking songs, there may be hope for you yet. Of those discarded songs, Brooke says: "It always seems like when you are embarrassed of something you created, you look back on it later and realize that you actually like it. So I don't know, [but] I'd imagine somehow it will all surface at some point. For better or worse."