After considering a stream of outwardly similar acts like the Tiger Trap and Bratmobile in the late ’90s, John Peel once commented, “Why are the Aislers Set better than any of the others?” Then he answered the question himself: “Well, I don’t really know — they just sort of are.” True as his statement rang, the simplified take didn’t do justice to singer-songwriter Amy Linton’s project. Formerly of Henry’s Dress, Linton’s new outfit was flexible and dexterous, replete with signifiers ranging from C86 dream-pop to punk to Phil Spector’s wall of sound. They were complex and cutting, and their relatively small-time status as a critics’ band hasn’t stopped them from influencing myriad modern acts. In this spirit, the Set’s three full-length albums, Terrible Things Happen, The Last Match and How I Learned to Write Backwards, are being reissued.
Imbued with the subtleties of indie-pop, punk, and less obvious flavors like doo-wop, Terrible Things Happen, the band’s 1998 debut, is a remarkably fleshed-out production that jumps from pot-banging loud to coo-quiet with almost alarming ease. No matter how chunky the guitars get on offerings like “Friends of the Heroes,” however, Linton’s voice rings clear and calm. She seemed more overtly enamored by Lesley Gore and the work of Spector’s girl groups than, say, Bikini Kill, and it lent what could have been just another scrappy indie-rock album a soft touch. But not too soft: “Falling Buildings” (and even the clean-sweeping “Holiday Gone Well”) hits the ear like a stone mallet and emerges from the cozy cocoon of Terrible Things in a frenzy, swooping so hard via rare drum fills and feedback it almost swings.
Sophomore album The Last Match (2000) flaunted more personality, possibly because it was more of a full-band effort, yet many see it as the least essential Aislers Set release. The synths get a little wacky, the song structures more rubbery and malleable, which worked, but then you have the three painful tracks on which Linton doesn’t sing lead tapering down the momentum. Also dimming the excitement are cuts like “Hit the Snow” and “Christmas Song,” which furnish beautiful ideas but come off as half-baked and lacking a sense of purpose. An astute editor likely would have cut at least a half dozen songs from the Set’s sophomore effort, yet it makes perfect sense if you appreciate the albums that sandwich it in chronologically.
If The Last Match was a necessary growing pain of sorts, reflecting the fuzzy, lo-fi side of the band while foreshadowing sophistication to come, third full-length How I Learned to Write Backwards in 2003 could be considered the point at which the many powers at the Aislers Set’s disposal congeal. Yielding now-classics like “Mission Bells” and “Catherine Says” (and loads of trumpet, always a signature but particularly bold here), its refined, stylish sense of leave-them-wanting-more has aged mellifluously. If you’re looking for a starting point there’s no reason How I Learned shouldn’t be considered. Or, even better, seek out all three, as each unveils a unique side of the tough-to-pin-down outfit. It’s not hard to find a loud punk band these days, but locating one that successfully, yet subtly, balances so many delicately, delightfully disparate influences as the Aislers Set is near impossible. The bands they’ve influenced, from Vivian Girls to Victoria Bergsman, would surely agree.