The Sunshine and the Doubt

The Aislers Set's first album in three years tells a tale of illness, heartache, and Mission belles

It was a Saturday night in November 1998. I was in a pissy mood; my girlfriend and I were fighting. Neither of us wanted to be at a show, least of all in the dank, dilapidated environs of the Purple Onion. I drank sourly in a booth, picking at the gum under the table. Then the Aislers Set took the stage. One song, two songs, and I was out on the tiny dance floor, shaking to the beat with the rest of the audience. Those floating vocals, that raucous guitar, the chunky rhythms and handclaps -- soon we were all bouncing like mad, singing along to "Long Division," "My Boyfriend (Could Be a Spanish Man)," and "Holiday Gone Well." I swear it felt like seeing the Beatles play Hamburg in 1962. The electricity of the performance -- the crowd's reaction and the band's reaction to the crowd's reaction -- was off the charts. When the Aislers Set finished its last song, the DJ threw on an old soul record, the musicians jumped into the throng, and the crowd went nuts.

There would be other great Aislers Set shows -- the June 2000 release party for The Last Matchat Cafe Du Nord, a slot opening for Aussie pop icons the Go-Betweens at Slim's in December 2000 -- but nothing else ever quite equaled that night. As indie pop DJ events, venues, and bands disappeared like so much secondhand smoke, the Aislers' profile in the Bay Area telescoped as well. After a series of shows in mid-2001, the act withdrew from the local spotlight; in 2002, the group played three times as many shows in New York City as here. On the Internet, rumors circulated that the Aislers' leader, Amy Linton -- who'd begun dividing her time between S.F. and an apartment in the Big Apple -- had been stricken with everything from shingles to cancer.

When the band finally reappeared -- with the Mission Bells12-inch in November 2002 and last month's LP, How I Learned to Write Backwards-- the results were decidedly odd. While there was still evidence of the Aislers' trademark garage pop, the outfit's new songs swerved from ruminative piano balladry to echoey gospel chants to cacophonous noise sludge. You can just imagine some kid in Topeka calling up his record store and asking if there's been some mistake: He'd wanted the new Aislers Set LP, not some strange experimental pop album. What gives?


Doug Adesko

Details

With the Quails and Ee

Thursday, March 6, at 9 p.m.

Tickets are $11 in advance, $13 at the door

885-0750

Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk), S.F.
www.musichallsf.com

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"If I ever have to hear Talulah Gosh another time, I'm going to stick a stick in whoever's eye is playing it," says Amy Linton, seated at the kitchen table of a friend's Mission flat. Such a statement might seem a bit harsh, considering that many listeners see a direct link between the U.K. icons Linton mentions and her own group. After all, both acts play indie pop -- a style known more for its twee sensibilities than its murderous tendencies -- with healthy dollops of '60s girl-group vocals and speedy punk thrust. But Linton's never been your standard indie kid. Her first band back in grade school in Albuquerque, N.M., was known for covering Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train," and the act that brought her to the Bay Area -- the mod-punk trio Henry's Dress -- offered thundering sheets of noise, with nary a jangling melody or cute sentiment in sight. HD's "Target Practice" pretty much summed up the threesome's attitude, with Linton singing, "I'd love to see you in the springtime/ And I'd kick you in the balls/ Oh wah ho oh."

But for the Aislers Set's 1998 debut, Terrible Things Happen, Linton showed off a wider palette of styles and emotions. Recorded in her garage -- with 10 songs crafted by Linton alone and four tunes featuring the live unit of bassist Alicia Vanden Heuvel, drummer Yoshi Nakamoto, and guitarist Wyatt Cusick -- the record displayed an impressive range, shifting from the lulling sweetness of "Alicia's Song" to the punkish chug-a-lug of "Holiday Gone Well" to the surfy swagger of "I've Been Mistreated." Working with only her eight-track recorder, Linton seemed like an indie pop Phil Spector, her winsome tunes offering no sign of their modest origins.

"It was really exciting," says Mike Schulman, owner of the Aislers' label, Slumberland Records, about the first album. "It made me like pop music all over again."

Terrible Things Happen received glowing reviews in CMJ, The Big Takeover, and numerous indie pop zines, earning enough of a following to generate a tour of Japan in April 1999. Having added a fifth member, Fairways bassist Jen Cohen, on keyboards, the band then recorded its sophomore disc, The Last Match. (When once asked about the difference between her two groups, Cohen said the Aislers "drink way more.") Linton's growing confidence in her home studio, along with the combo's increasingly tight playing and Cohen's Vox organ, made for a fuller sound. Spinnamed the album to its Top 20 of 2000, saying, "Linton has cleared the cobwebs off the Pop conundrum and dolled them up in a perfect dress." On Salon.com, Greil Marcus wrote, "They make dream pop feel as easy to make as a can of soup, and as dangerous: Watch that jagged edge." High praise followed in the New York Times, NME, Gear, and Alternative Press, and the band set out on West Coast and European tours.

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