Bands self-title records for all kinds of reasons: Sometimes, it's for lack of something better, or it can be a good way to make a debut album stand as a introduction to the band's sound. But when bands that have been around for years come out with a self-titled album, the eponymous title often serves as a way to say: This is really who we are.
Even though Chicago's The Autumn Defense have two records and eight years under their belt, multi-instrumentalists John Stirratt and Pat Sansone (who are also both members of Wilco) decided that their third record was the one that really sounded the way they have been wanting to sound.
"We felt like this record was really the first of our work that crystallized something, crystallized the feeling that we've been striving for," said Sansone. "Not that it's an end-all to that, but just the first time where we felt like it really represented the soul of the band."
The two previous Autumn Defense records, Circles (Arena Rock, 2003) and The Green Hour (Broadmoor, 2001), have been described as "California-esque"; words like "sunny" and "warm" saturate the reviews. But if those records were "California-esque," then The Autumn Defense (Broadmoor, 2007) is more like Oregon: greener, cooler, but still as epically gorgeous. The '70s soft-rock vibe is still alive and well: "Canyon Arrow" begins the album with enough flute to fill, well, a canyon, and "Feel You Now" moves with a slightly disco beat. But a slower, duskier feeling is present. The piano and pedal steel on "Spend Your Life" sway and swell; "City Bells" has a bossa-nova guitar rhythm; and the dramatic melody of "Where You Are" is reminiscent of Chicago the band as well as Chicago the city, which makes sense, seeing as The Autumn Defense was recorded in Chicago in the winter.
"When you're working in the winter, you have to kind of close yourself in. You have to shut the doors and get warm, and you're sort of forced to have to create some warmth wherever you can. Especially in Chicago," said Sansone. "There is a warmth about this record, but I also think that it doesn't seem like a completely sunny record to me."
What is truly captured on The Autumn Defense is a mood that oscillates just enough between warm and cool to keep things interesting. The record is relaxed and alive, textured yet incredibly easy on the ears.
A lot of this feeling, said Sansone, comes from the very process by which the record was made.
"It's the first record we've made since we've both lived in the same city, so the process of just making the music, making the songs, making the record, was more relaxed for us. Before, whenever we worked together, one of us would have to travel to the other city to do things, or we'd write in separate cities and then send each other things in the mail, and then we'd get together when we could," said Sansone. "So (for) this album, we were actually able to sort of stretch out and work on the record in our own time, and I think that just made the process a little more natural and organic."
"Natural" and "organic," mostly because The Autumn Defense began when Stirratt and Sansone realized that their musical sensibilities naturally complemented one another.
"John and I started hanging out and sitting around and playing guitar and singing together, and we realized that we had very similar voices, that we had a great harmony blend, and that was really where it started," explained Sansone. "We have voices that lend themselves to more delicate arrangements, voices that are best surrounded by acoustic guitar and piano and organic instruments. I think a lot of that '70s music that gets referenced when talking about us is music that's built around the same thing, built around harmony singing. ... I think it just all stems from what made sense with the way that we sing together, and we just followed that and let everything come from that. Then, when we started writing music, and when we do write music for The Autumn Defense, we write for that vocal blend, and I think that's what all those cats were doing back then as well. They were writing for their voices."
The Autumn Defense is, then, not only a crystallization of The Autumn Defense's sound, but the voices of Sansone and Stirratt, clearly expressed and articulated.