Assembly of Dust: Required Listening

By: Court Scott

Assembly of Dust by C. Taylor Crothers
Though certainly excited at the prospect of a new disc from Assembly of Dust (AoD), I was both dubious and curious upon learning the recording, Some Assembly Required (released July 21 on Rock Ridge Music/Missing Piece Group) (JamBase review here), has at least one guest musician on each of the album's 13 tracks. Other bands, including Galactic and Keller Williams have done similar projects with From the Corner to the Block and Dream, respectively, and were met with mild skepticism by critics and fans alike.

A flurry of thoughts: This is only AoD's second studio album; is it too soon to take on a project like this? The band's last release was 2007's Recollection (JamBase review here), and prior to that, a live recording called The Honest Hour in 2004. Would the new album be focused enough to sound like the band, or will each guest's bold signature sound overwhelm the quartet? Also, if a band's sound and songs are their brand, does hosting a guest per track detract from their image, their message? And if I'm honest, in my cold, dark heart I wondered, "Is this a marketing ploy to sell more units?" To gain insight into the band's writing, recording and thinking processes, AoD's main songwriter and vocalist Reid Genauer and drummer Andy Herrick were each good enough to drop me a line and share their impressions with me.

Initially formed as a quintet in 2002, but now short one keyboardist and down to four members, AoD got together after Genauer departed from Strangefolk. Fans and critics alike have heralded AoD, who are respected for their consonant, tuneful songwriting bolstered by meaningful, smart lyricism. AoD, I agree, are poised to crossover to the mainstream and recorded over two years, the songs on Some Assembly Required stoke and utterly reaffirm that opinion. Seven of the 13 tracks have been made available on the band's website since early June. Released each Tuesday leading up to the release date, the band used this approach to reward fans and give an audio teaser to casual or unfamiliar listeners.

Musically, AoD has drawn comparisons to The Beatles and The Band, which no doubt is due in great part to the songwriting duo of Genauer and former keyboardist and current co-producer Nate Wilson's shared understanding of songcraft and appreciation for the history of American roots music. Many of the songs had been marinating for years, explains Genauer, most having been written by himself, some with the help of Wilson. The bulk of the material was about three years old, but a 16-year-old Genauer wrote the oldest 20 years ago. "It was written when I still dreamed of being in a band. It was THE first song I wrote that moved out of the first position on a guitar neck." As far as the song selections on Some Assembly Required go, each track is a perfect snapshot from lives intertwined, varying from the frustratingly mundane to unabashedly proud to achingly devastating, all clever ruminations paired with well arranged, sparsely orchestrated, home-baked, hooky tunes.

Genauer by Susan J. Weiand
The collection of songs on Some Assembly Required were primarily unreleased, and were more therapeutically written than purposefully so. "It wasn't about writing songs for a specific album," says Genauer. "We just had some songs recorded, some we played in a live setting, and some were just sitting in a bucket in a dark corner. Generally, those songs are the ones we worked with." Herrick tells me the album was recorded over four days in late summer of 2008. Genauer notes with a hint of pride that as he wrote the songs he became more comfortable "trying on" different characters, writing from different point of view. "[The songs] are time capsules that reflect a specific process and times in my life, some are autobiographical some are from other perspectives. There are different characters I interact with."

Having an abundance of material allowed for a new freedom in the studio, according to Genauer, because in addition to the songs themselves, they had greater time to create and tinker with arrangements and production. "This time we had time to write as we [went]. Sometimes we would create while the mics [were] running," explains Herrick about his time in the studio with Genauer, guitarist Adam Terrell and bassist John Leccese. Where the material on previous AoD albums had been "road tested," played and recorded in live rotation and allowed to shape-shift over time, this album came into its own in the studio.

Gordon & Leccese (AoD) by Britt Nemeth
Genauer likened the alternate, unhurried approach to grocery shopping. "Sometimes you just buy the same things day in and day out. But some days you crave different flavors, textures, or tastes," he says. "We went into the studio with that in mind." Further, because each song and its parts was able to distill better and in using songs that hadn't been played live, AoD didn't have to "untangle or un-bake" songs that fans had already become familiar with. Instead, the band was able to infuse the tracks they decided would be on the album with other creative input and different genetics in the form of multiple guests.

The entire list of guests is comprised of musicians Genauer has long respected and with whom he's hoped to work in some capacity. Even the album's title is a play not only on the band's name but a nod that each track is an assembly of musicians. The resulting roster boasts some of the finest players in their generation. Richie Havens, David Grisman, Béla Fleck, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Mike Gordon, John Scofield, Martin Sexton and more each add their signature sound in a supporting capacity.

Continue reading for more on AoD...

I tried to select instrumentalists who were complimentary to each song, someone who could change the texture. I had to think about who would make sense, who I aspired to play with and who had similar musical aesthetics. It was possible to imagine but impossible to know what they'd add.

-Reid Genauer

Photo by: C. Taylor Crothers

"It was awesome," says Herrick of recording with the various guests. "[Each musician made their respective piece] stronger, added more of a flavor than affected the overall taste of the track," he continued, unaware that Genauer, too, fancied discussing the project in culinary terms.

Assembly of Dust
Most of the songs were written and their structure didn't deviate radically from the original by the time they were recorded, Genauer says. "The songs are skeletons [when we go into the studio], and the band delivered the flesh and muscle to the songs." Herrick continues, "Reid and Nate would make rough tapes which demonstrated the direction and feel they wanted songs to take, because they know what they want. I think one that ended up different was 'Leadbelly' [with Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss]. Some songs had several slightly different versions at the end of the day, but we always record [different] versions to support the story Reid tells. We [the rest of the band] use texture and feel to best support his words."

Both Herrick and Genauer used the word "satisfying" often, almost as much as they used the word "pride," and this being at peace with the songs and the recording comes across on the album. The resulting disc opens strong with "All That I Am Now," a wide-open, anthemic stomp with Genauer sharing vocal and guitar duties with '60s icon and Woodstock opening act Richie Havens. The clarity and power of Genauer's voice is reflected and complimented by the overall grand, reverby tones and texture of the song. The third track, "Cold Coffee," featuring David Grisman's plaintive mandolin, is met by Genauer's soft articulation of heartache, depression and self-doubt, making this coupling perfect. Similarly, "Second Song" with Keller Williams is AoD's answer to John Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" or Steve Miller's "The Joker," a short story about dreams, realities and a lack of resources stacked against poppy, rolling melodies. Béla Fleck's rollicking, distinctive plucking on "Edges" make it a standout, with the banjo's phrasing saying as much as any words.

If a band's sound and songs are unique, then their sound and their words are as big a part of their brand as, say, their trademarked logo, name or live reputation. It is what makes a band almost instantly identifiable, so I was intrigued about how AoD would maintain their signature sound with so many guests.

Reid Genauer by C. Taylor Crothers
"I tried to select instrumentalists who were complimentary to each song, someone who could change the texture," Genauer says. "I had to think about who would make sense, who I aspired to play with and who had similar musical aesthetics. It was possible to imagine but impossible to know what they'd add."

Genauer calls the experiences in the studio "extremely poignant and meaningful" because his heroes became his colleagues. It is an endorsement and affirmation of the personal risks taken by Genauer.

A majority of the songs sound and feel natural with soft, acoustic stringed instruments, but it is the weighted delivery of both "Pedal Down," a rangy, loose-limbed Southern rocker featuring Cincinnati's Brothers Gabbard of the Buffalo Killers and the straightforward chugging rock of "Arc of the Sun," about the birth of Genauer's son, that add an edge to the album. Though "Arc" has been played live and is not necessarily new to fans, the album version is anchored by Mike Gordon and his swirling, fuzzed-out bass solo. Also featured on "High Brow," another rockin' track is moe.'s Al Schnier who helps inflate the band into something more aggressive and edgy, a sound that completely works.

How this all shakes out live, without the benefit of the guests, is something fans are curious to see and hear. When I asked Genauer if he was concerned about the lack of the guests during a live performance he replied, "Sometimes it's harder to recreate songs in the studio because the energy and excitement in a live setting can't be recreated. In this case the guests are that x-factor, and they created the energy usually created by the audience. The audience will do the same without guests, and also, the songs may grow and evolve. I look forward to what they become."

AoD will be touring throughout the summer and through the end of October, gaining momentum and working to build on their already solid assembly. While I was initially concerned that each guest would overwhelm the band, in retrospect I would have liked AoD to augment their guest's signature sounds a little more - boost them in the mix, extend a solo - but each guest did exactly what the band hoped they would do and that is what matters. They added a slightly foreign accent on an otherwise unmistakable voice and accomplish this without pretense. The strong writing and subtle arrangements definitely make this masterful Assembly of tunes Required listening.

Assembly of Dust tour dates available here, Reid Genauer solo dates here.

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