Brooklyn’s the Antlers have come a long way since going from a solo project to a trio for 2009′s Hospice. Though still built around Peter Silberman’s vulnerable voice, bare-all lyrics and silvery guitar, the band’s palette has grown to include Warp-style electronics and light chamber instruments. Familiars is vast and enveloping, but in a immersive rather than interstellar way; imagine Pink Floyd plumbing the Mariana Trench instead of the dark side of the moon.
The sound of the album is glittering and dreamy and full of studio flourishes — like the stereo-panned moans in “Hotel” or the insectile whirr chewing away at “Doppelganger.” But the details highlight rather than distract from the songwriting: On “Palace,” Michael Lerner’s characteristically simple, sound percussion anchors a lovely piano melody and a softly sweeping trumpet, while Silberman’s voice alternately spikes high and plunges down into a naturalistic register.
In fact, Silberman’s vocals have improved to a remarkable degree. He used to mostly add furtive color to slow, sprawling instrumentation. But the pervasive influence of R&B on indie music has not passed him by, and Familiars reveals him to be an expressive singer with access to a range of effects below his reliable falsetto. He’s startlingly emphatic on the showstopper “Revisited,” where his voice rides grandly swaying trombone, cello and guitar.
Silberman, perhaps, in hindsight, to his regret, often invoked Neutral Milk Hotel as a big influence for the traumatic, cathartic, theatrical concept-rock of Hospice. The comparison stuck. Embracing electronics was a way to gain some distance from it. In 2011, he made a point of telling Pitchfork that he didn’t listen to much Aeroplane Over the Sea anymore, but Antlers multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci (on trumpet as well as bass, piano and keys) and two auxiliary trombonists still might. The record is heavy on brass, which enhances every song on which it appears, and the horns conjure the same wearied majesty as Scott Spillane’s, though they exist in a pearly, polished world than in Neutral Milk Hotel’s ramshackle one.
A couple nimbler songs with ’50s-rock traces — reverbed stabs of guitar, soft breezes of vocal harmony — let air into what otherwise could have been monolithic goop. On “Intruders,” as a Rhodes piano adds elegant counterpoint to a curlicued guitar, Silberman sings, “And when my double scales the wall/ I’ll know exactly where he’s landing and I’ll surprise him.” This “double,” a covert motif, sneaks through the usual bloodletting, most explicitly on the shadowy “Doppelganger.” It’s an apropos image for a singer who seems to have crossed through the looking glass to become a more powerful, persuasive version of himself.