A-Sides Ways

A local band makes the flip side superfluous.

By Doug Wallen
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 23, 2005

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"When we started, we wanted to be the Beatles on Live at the BBC," says A-Sides drummer Patrick Marsceill, sitting with frontman Jon Barthmus and guitarist Chris Cosentino in University City's Clark Park, not far from where the band formed.

"We wanted to play some rock 'n' roll music," agrees Barthmus.

For three years the Philly band has been building on those humble ambitions, which culminate this week in the release of the headphones-happy Hello, Hello. Jangly and crisp, the album recalls a Shins record in its mining of familiar '60s influences for a lush, bright-hued sound that feels brand-new. It's stronger and sweeter than nearly every record that came during the "Psychedelphia" phase of Philadelphia's indie rock scene, and is on par with the Lilys' classic Better Can't Make Your Life Better.

The album's producer Brian McTear likens the album's opener-with a handful of people clapping and stomping on wooden stairs that are miked from underneath-to Queen's "We Will Rock You." The album closes with the sprawling, syrupy "Here or There," which the band says was inspired by Spiritualized, My Bloody Valentine and Olivia Tremor Control. In between sit nine ridiculously lovely pop songs.

Barthmus' lyrics are simple and timeless, tinged with both rainy-day melancholy and day-after optimism. On the harmony-laced "Only Michelle," he sings, "I've been thinking about growing old/ And it can't be half as bad/ As the stories I've been told." Another potent head-bobbing chorus comes on "Sorry Cloud": "Run and tell the sun/ It's time to shine for everyone/ We need the light."

Barthmus has a real penchant for that kind of hushed self-assurance. "Everybody Knows the Way" closes with the dreamy refrain, "We don't even have to die these days." It's a worthy successor to the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby."

Brought together by classes at Drexel and time served in a few hardcore bands, the members of the A-Sides started by knocking out terse time-capsule anthems in the spirit of the Kinks and the Who. Matching suits and other old-fashioned touches culminated in the band's debut "double A-side" single "Going Gone"/"Seeing Suzy" (or vice versa). It came out on Scranton's upstart Prison Jazz label, run by an old Drexel acquaintance and his friends.

Lean, high-strung and infectious, the single earned rave reviews but also branded the A-Sides as pure revivalists.

"We hated that we were being pegged as a mod band," Barthmus says, "because we didn't even really know that scene existed, and all of the sudden we were like part of it."

He says the single's rough-cut simplicity was due primarily to lack of time and money. "And because it was a 45," he adds, "we wanted it to be two rockin' '60s songs."

By this point they were already plotting a proper album, informed more by the baroque choirboy balladry of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the Zombies' Odessey & Oracle. When their label booked a solid two weeks in the well-stocked studio of Philly producer McTear, suddenly the legacy of those landmark albums didn't seem so out of reach.

Barthmus found himself returning to the piano, an instrument he'd started playing in first grade. "I had a major relapse," he says. "I would go to my parents' house to play."

The breathy harmonies then came naturally, followed by tantalizing Phil Spector-style visions of horns, strings, handclaps, tambourines and assorted oddball percussion.

In the studio last August, it was hard work one minute and a musical playground the next. The A-Sides brought in ex-members of April Disaster to play trumpet and violin. They even managed to track down a timpani. "That's a bigass drum," laughs Barthmus.

"Brian Wilson used a lot of those kinds of percussion sounds," Marsceill adds.

Countless other instruments were just a phone call away for McTear. "He's responsible for a lot of the sounds on the record," says Marsceill. "It definitely felt good to have no limits."

McTear recalls the A-Sides' meticulous preparation. "They really evaluated the moment-by-moment of every song." He also notes their fresh-faced appeal. "I think you can hear their innocence and sincerity."

McTear's partner Amy Morrissey was won over by the band's sense of humor and general silliness. She shares an anecdote about an ice cream truck coming down the dead-end alley where the studio is located, something she'd never seen before. "That seems like the sort of thing that probably happens to them all the time," she says.

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