While it's been over a year since Anberlin concluded their illustrious run, Stephen Christian hasn't gone anywhere. His new day job may be directing worship music at a church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but that's not to say that his days with Tooth & Nail Records are over. Times like these are when passion projects come back to life, and hence, we have Anchor & Braille's third album, Songs for the Late Night Drive Home, which also serves as Tooth & Nail's first release in 2016.
Though Anchor & Braille has been a side project from the beginning, it's nearly as old as Anberlin itself. Every once in awhile, Stephen would pen a song that just wasn't right for the Anberlin treatment, and so it became a A&B staple instead (though sometimes it worked vice-versa; "Cadence" was originally an A&B song before Anberlin recorded it for the band's debut). In a post-Anberlin world, however, A&B has to become its own entity, and indeed it does here.
For some time, fans were led to believe that A&B would abandon the full-length album format and embrace the method of releasing singles in short bursts. Under this approach, A&B released "Detroit Stab" and "Fatal Flaw" to the public in October 2014 with the promise of more individual tracks to follow. But fast forward over sixteen months later, and these singles ended up as far-in-advance teasers for A&B's third full-length effort, Songs for the Late Night Drive Home.
At first glance, Songs… isn't an attention-seeking release. The overall presentation feels less polished. It's a fairly short album, with only one track eclipsing the four-minute mark. And the art direction on the cover feels minimal and isn't terribly interesting. But aside from all of those factors, the very essence of the album, at least on initial review, feels unlike any other A&B project. But what connects this album to others in the A&B discography is the unavoidable sense of ambiance, romance, and reflection.
While A&B's debut, Felt, had production clearly influenced by Copeland's Aaron Marsh and the follow-up, The Quiet Life, being the result of collaborations with Nashville native Micah Tawlks, Songs… brings the relatively-unknown Nashville producer Brian Bernard to the helm, and with him comes an unmistakable electronic vibe that permeates the entire record, with some clear alternative influence and even some R&B elements. While an imperfect analogy, if Felt and The Quiet Life were Stephen's homages to Death Cab for Cutie's transparent heart-on-sleeve alt-rock, Songs... is the corresponding electronic vibes of The Postal Service. The album is so saturated with electronic soundscape that when a traditional instrument rears its head on occasion (like electric guitars on the blistering opener "Watch You Burn" or the horn section on "Keep Dancin'"), it's almost jarring.
Make no mistake, however; this isn't merely the result of computerized beats with Stephen Christian's vocal tracks pasted on top. What we get instead are a dynamic range of ballads ("Nightfall," "Chances," "Still Looking") and forward-driving upbeat tracks ("Lower East Side," "Summer," "Live Fast. Die Young.") with Stephen's haunting, sensitive, and soul-baring songwriting. These are all marks of an A&B approach. While the romantic "Summer" implements seasons to welcome back a long-lost lover ("Oh how I missed you so/winter was cold, but your memory kept me warm/only you can melt the snow in this cold heart/seasons change, but you know I loved you from the start"), "Fatal Flaw" is a gut-punch to arrogance and a lack of self-awareness ("It's so easy for one to find the fatal flaws in everyone else/we never stare very long into mirrors/we're under our own spells"). To be sure, some pennings are more poetic than others, but Stephen's falsetto-heavy vocals have always accentuated his straightforward songwriting approach.
Stephen Christian, wherever he goes, leaves a transcendent mark behind, and Songs for the Late Night Drive Home is no exception, complete with an accurate title (indeed, after testing, the album does make a great late-night drive soundtrack). While Stephen's solo worship album solidifies a release date (slated for late 2016 or early 2017, as of this review's writing), Anchor & Braille is proven to be an ongoing project that will continue to diversify in influences and iterations. Interestingly, we already know there will be an album number four, and Aaron Marsh has verbally committed to producing it. But until then, Anchor & Braille puts forth a serene and engaging journey with Songs for the Late Night Drive Home, and it's an eclectic early favorite for the year.
While it's been over a year since Anberlin concluded their illustrious run, Stephen Christian has stayed active in music as, among other projects, a church worship leader in Albuquerque, NM. However, that's not to say that his days with Tooth & Nail Records are over. Stephen's side project Anchor & Braille is still very much active, and another record has arisen with Songs for the Late Night Drive Home, which also serves as Tooth & Nail's first release in 2016. A&B's third full-length album is aptly and practically titled, as it's simultaneously a mellow and energetic journey that keeps things under a proverbial evening darkness. As "Detroit Stab" and "Fatal Flaw" previously indicated, A&B opts for a electronic-heavy approach this time around; The Quiet Life's "Goes Without Saying" was a good introduction to this future sound, though the scarcity of traditional instruments does make this effort's first couple of listens a bit jarring. From the fast-paced "Live Fast. Die Young." and "Summer," to the synth-heavy opener "Watch It Burn" and the bass-dependent "Lower East Side," it's a consistent, but also varied, collection. For the dubious, Stephen's signature falsetto makes plenty of appearances, and the songwriting approach still falls squarely into A&B's wheelhouse. Time will tell how this album stacks up in Stephen Christian's discography overall, but this should serve as a landmark release this winter... --->
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