Quilt weaves a psych-pop patchwork
Boston trio puts a shine on Held in Splendor
Singer and guitarist Shane Butler remembers exactly how the three members of the Boston psych-pop band Quilt felt when they first listened to the master recordings of their new album, Held in Splendor, released in January via Mexican Summer. It wasn't too dissimilar from when the group first heard its 2011 self-titled debut. "Each time, it's like, 'Oh my god, we're finally Quilt,'" Butler says. "This finally sounds like a Quilt record. But we're already writing new material for our next record, and I'm like, 'Oh my god, this is Quilt! We've finally found it!' Hopefully, that's what constantly happens - we're constantly unveiling the layers of the onion and getting more into the core of it."
And what if, someday, Butler and his bandmates — Anna Fox Rochinski (vocals, guitar, organ) and John Andrews (drums) — listen to a new record and don't hear a fresh layer of the onion? "If that ever was to happen, that'd be fine, too," he says, voice twinkling with carefree resignation.
Therein lies the charm of these free-spirited East Coasters, whose jangling, easygoing music matches their joyful and effortless bond. In 2014, the music industry teems with legacy acts that set aside the baggage of long-ago breakups to cash in on nostalgia tours and brand-new bands who shrewdly hire a powerful publicist before putting out music or playing shows. By comparison, Quilt feels more like a family band, or at least a group of friends with their hearts in the right place and a wide-eyed attitude toward the future: "All my heavy dreams are simply a luxury," Rochinski sings 20 seconds into "Arctic Shark," the first song on the new album. Later, on "A Mirror," the band resolves to "make amends with everything that we'll be."
Quilt started a few years ago after Butler, a New Yorker, met Rochinski, a Bostonian, in college. Andrews joined later, replacing original drummer Taylor McVay. Butler loves playing with his bandmates; you can hear it in the way he talks about their strengthening friendships and songwriting, and the overlaps in their interests. "We all have our distinct interests, but we're constantly at these highway intersections where we have so much crossover and that becomes Quilt," he says. "In the time we spend reading poetry together, reading books, showing each other things, talking with each other, and then playing music with each other — that births most of the songs."
And when these like-minded people come together to make music, magic can and does happen, as evidenced by Held in Splendor, which takes the formula Quilt mined on its debut — '60s-echoing psychedelic folk-pop built on gentle drones and draped in beatific chants and harmonies — and polishes it, but not too much. Held in Splendor finds Quilt ably walking the line between fluid and fussy, dialing in its distinctive sound while retaining the ragged, relaxed feel that gained the band buzz with its debut.
It's also varied and secretly addicting, with enough (relaxed) rockers to break up the haze-pop reverie, most notably the feathery flower-punk of "A Mirror," the classic Nuggets-style psych jam "Mary Mountain," and the surrealistic sing-along "Saturday Bride." Elsewhere, the group employs an army of sounds — Eastern guitar on "Arctic Shark," lush strings on "I Sleep in Nature," a ghostly whoosh throughout "The Hollow" — while lyrical themes of dreams, candlelight, and the sea rear their heads across several songs. The highlight of this strong set is "Tie Up the Tides," a pulsating wanderer's tale that moves at a walking pace and puts Rochinski's beguiling voice front and center.
Butler says the album's sharper focus is rooted in three places: Quilt's improved musicianship and tightness it honed on the road, a more patient, less improvisational songwriting process, and a decision to self-record the entire album in Boston before entering Mexican Summer's in-house studio in Brooklyn with producer Jarvis Taveniere.
The demo was done primarily to ensure Quilt optimized its time in the studio. "We wanted to start thinking about sequencing really early on, and we also just wanted to hear the sounds beforehand and start a conversation about what we could do to make the songs even more than they were," Butler says. "For the last record, we never had a deadline, and the process lasted a long time. This time, we had a month so we said, 'OK, if we have the demos, we're going to be able to construct this so much easier and have more room to breathe while we're recording.'"
It was in that room to breathe that Quilt resisted buffing out the album's rough spots. Or maybe Butler, Rochinski, and Andrews just have an uncommonly mature approach to capturing their songs. "It's good to have intention," Butler says. "But then as you play you start to realize that an intention doesn't have to have a finite existence, and by allowing it to constantly reveal itself to you without trying to make it something, it does become a lot more fluid."
What Quilt's intention and fluidity add up to, of course, is for listeners to decide. When articles about the band began regularly using words like "retro" and "vintage," and citing Quilt's debt to the 1960s, Butler grew frustrated, though he acknowledges the trio's interest in writers and music from that era. But as the group has grown up, he has learned to let that kind of criticism slide. Although the group does channel energy from decades past, it never sets out to sound shipped in from the Summer of Love. Musically speaking, Quilt doesn't set out to do anything in particular, except whatever comes out naturally. "I can't define our sound," he says. "I just know that we play music that comes from our heart, and that's what we focus on, and when we do that, hopefully it sounds chill."