w/ Figurine, Emily Falls
Tues Aug 21, Crocodile, $6.
Sometimes, the Places play their shows standing up. Standard posture for rock musicians, sure, but when this Portland band does it, it inspires a certain degree of awkwardness in the audience. It's usually just the two of them up there--Amy Annelle and Ryan Stowe--and they play such quiet, pretty music, the vulnerability in standing seems brave.
Originally Annelle's project, she recruited Stowe (who also plays in the Swords Project) to fill her songs out with guitar and short-wave radio. Annelle writes all the songs and lyrics and, as the vocalist, is the focal point of the show. Her eyes are often closed or dreamy, and sometimes her toes turn in, like she's about to fall into a chasm. Stowe is the grounding force, his guitar adding calm, spare notes to Annelle's fleshy chords. You feel slightly uncomfortable seeing it; they look intimate and unaware, but you are watching them.
Early this year, the duo (with help from a cache of Portland's best musicians) released its first full-length, The Autopilot Knows You Best, on Absolutely Kosher Records.
"This record happened one song at a time, over more than a year," Annelle says. "There wasn't a master plan behind it; it was just me and Ryan and our friends on instruments that we were good at, or could make a part on. Most everyone on the record has played in a live version of the Places at some point. It was great to record like that, to get inside each song instead of, 'Okay, basic tracks for everything today, vocals tomorrow.' We recorded it with friends in town [Portland] who had different recording setups (mostly at Type Foundry studios, but also at Jealous Butcher, Jackpot, and on a four-track cassette) before a label wanted to put it out. A lot of shared talent and time and resources is what made it turn out like it did."
The record angles down and cuts straight for the heart. The songwriting is studied and careful, guitars taking ginger steps through the melodies; sometimes more upbeat, but often delicate and pointed, like they're looking straight into your eyes. There are airy drum fills, bittersweet violins and accordions, and vintage record samples in between songs; on their own, those sounds are powerful.
Of her songwriting, Annelle says, "A basic idea, some words or a musical phrase, usually sets off a reaction that starts repeating itself, and I try to let [the song] do whatever it wants. It keeps refining itself, and different melodies come out, and then I'll go home and try it on the four-track and listen, and hate it, and see what is still missing, and so on. It is pretty much a free-for-all, but in the end I think my song structures are pretty simple and familiar. I write more traditional structures. I like resolution."
The songs may be simple, but there's a special secret weapon to the Places--Annelle's voice. She is careful and breathy, as if she's singing stealth secrets in whispers and lullabies. Her harmonies are subtle, imbuing melancholic chords. Sometimes she lets her voice gather friction against itself, while singing lines like, "I couldn't fix you if I wanted to." Her lyrics are personal and straightforward, yet retain a level of the universal esoteric.
"Ninety-nine percent of what I write down never finds its way into a song, but eventually something sticks," she says. "There is a core of some personal experience, but once the gears start having at an idea, things will hopefully shift toward being less personal or diary-like, and more open for people to see their own things in."
There is space in the Places' sentiment. The first line on Autopilot asks, "Do you long for something you could take care of, or it to take care of you?" (from "Own Your Own Home"). She continues with lines such as, "When you fall hard/you see the prettiest stars," and, "Wait for me and take your sleep/without dreams by degrees."
I ask Annelle when it was first apparent that music was important to her. "The first memory like that, I was maybe three or four and I was falling asleep on my bedroom floor. 'I Am the Walrus' by the Beatles was on the clock radio in the next room. I was alone and in the dark, in that space where you are asleep and awake at the same time, and it felt so good and lonely and creepy and transcendent, like listening to the song in its natural habitat."
Listening to the Places is much like listening to music in its natural habitat as well--slow and subtle, as awkward and heavenly as a dream.