The side project of Anberlin vocalist/guitarist Stephen Christian and Copeland mastermind Aaron Marsh, Anchor & Braille created 2009’s lauded Felt (to do disservice to the host of other musicians who made the album happen), a minor feat that managed to transcend the technically-accurate-yet-somehow-derisive label “it’s like Anberlin vocals put to Copeland music,” if only slightly. (Interesting side note: Christian actually wrote most of the music, a fact which nevertheless does nothing to dispel its distinctly Copelandian leanings.) Three years later, Marsh is out of the picture, but Anchor & Braille has, in many ways, retained its sound—or, more accurately, pieces of it. Or, more accurately still, perhaps too many pieces of it.
These are still fairly laidback tracks on the aptly-titled The Quiet Life, and Christian still seems perfectly at ease eschewing his hard-rock exoskeleton in favor of softer, maybe even thin skin (his lyrics remain staunchly sentimental throughout). Even in Marsh’s absence, those seemingly “signature” sonic flourishes remain in place, from the lap steel of opener “Goes without Saying” to the surprisingly cohesive pairing of violin and electronic keyboard on “Before I Start Dreaming.” There are some solid musical through-lines, sure: the programmed percussion, the slow arpeggiated guitars, Christian’s often-heady vocals. But even with these recurring touches, the album does not want for variety; it’s able to move from almost alt rock (“Kodachrome”) to slow, piano-driven ballads like “Hymn for Her” with nary a hiccup.
It may seem counterintuitive, then, to say that The Quiet Life’s chief problem is actually sameness—but it’s a certain sort of sameness that’s to blame. Part of Felt’s appeal was likely that it came as something of a shock. Even with Marsh on the knobs (and some strings…and keys…and trombones…), listeners were pleasantly surprised by the fact that Christian was so at ease in his new environs. Now that he’s proven what he’s capable of, however, it’s disappointing to find him not really doing anything unexpected of him. For all the song-to-song fluctuations of The Quiet Life, it’s still quite solidly an indie-pop record through and through, as well as one squarely in the same wheelhouse as its predecessor–which may have just about the same amount of variation, but also has the built-in (and, admittedly, unfair) benefit of simply getting there sooner.
By no means is The Quiet Life an artistic failure. It offers up hooky, dynamic tracks such as “Knew Then Know Now” and “In with the New” right alongside gorgeous, lush pieces like “Before I Start Dreaming” (which gives Felt pinnacle “Summer Tongues” a run for its money as most expertly emotive ballad). What it doesn’t offer up are any tweaks to the formula. And even with all the diversity on display, this is still probably an album that lends itself more to small doses than marathon listening (really, the same can arguably be said of Felt). For what it’s worth, it is reassuring to discover (or reaffirm) that Christian can craft a relaxed, melodic album even without Marsh’s helpful hands, and largely free from Anberlin’s influence. Since he’s established himself as so skilled a hand at reinvention, it would be more reassuring to hear him keep those boundaries moving.
The Quiet Life is offered for $8.99 by Best Buy, or a dollar more from local merchant The Sound Garden in Fells Point. Although Anchor & Braille dropped by Ram’s Head On Stage in late July, the band is currently wrapping up its tour; Stephen Christian fans can still catch him with Anberlin at DC101’s Kerfuffle at Jiffy Lube Live on September 15th, before they depart for a series of UK dates.