One of the better Philly bands to emerge last year was Sun Airway, a duo consisting of Jon Barthmus and Patrick Marsceill.
While their debut full-length album, Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier, came out last October, there was plenty going on behind the scene before that release.
Barthmus and Marsceill have been a commodity on the Philly music scene for years as part of the A-Sides, a well-received guitar-rock band whose songs had a nice pop edge to go along with its peppy pace.
Before the A-Sides, there was a short-lived hardcore outfit. But in 2007, the band officially called it quits, to the chagrin of a fairly dedicated fan base.
Really, though, the pair — mostly led by Barthmus — were heading for a change in sound, one drastic enough to warrant a change in name.
Indeed, even as the A-Sides, they and been working on and playing some songs that would end up as Sun Airway numbers.
That it took some two years for Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier to be released is a measure of the time and care they took to develop that sound.
Using an approach that shunned the bang-it-out-quick attitude employed on so many rock albums, Barthmus and Marsceill spent over two years perfecting what would eventually amount to a 10-track album.
Released by the respected Dead Oceans label, the record seems an affirmation that they’re on to something. And with Dead Oceans being a sister label to Secretly Canadian, it puts them among good company with other Philly bands, including The War on Drugs and Nightlands.
The care and thought that went into Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier — the name is a spin-off of a piece of pop art by Ed Ruscha called Exploded Crystal Chandelier Headache — are evident from the first song.
With a gentle, building fuzz, Infinity welcomes listeners into the album with a subtle grace that stirs a sense of warmth. For being so placid, it’s also a surprisingly clear message — this is no repackaged A-Sides album.
Described by the indie-mag Pitchfork as “bliss-pop” and compared to the vaunted Animal Collective album Merriweather Post Pavilion — itself a departure for that band — Sun Airway fashions its sound not from loud guitars and crisp snare drums, but from an array of electronic gadgetry.
Ready to move past the limited palette of instruments already deployed in their A-Sides efforts, Barthmus and Marsceill turned to a variety of digital tools. So don’t look for any six-string thrashing on this one.
And really, they don’t need it. Maybe the only thing left from their guitar-pop days is a honed sense of pop and a mature sense of songwriting.
Songs like American West just shimmer with pleasure, with a cool synth sheen glossing the upbeat tempo that carries along engaging lyrics. It can feel a little 1980s with all the electronics going on, but in a very good way.
Other songs, like Waiting On You, are faster-paced jams that rock out; but somehow you don’t lose that ethereal, fuzzy quality that gives the Sun Airway songs their soft and addictive hooks.
Indeed, they seem to have employed some tricks picked up during their studio days and brought them home to the basement, where Sun Airway assembled the sophisticated debut.
The thoroughly crafted and innovative sound has been getting attention, giving these artists — now playing with a live band nearly identical to the old A-Sides lineup — some fresh and much-deserved recognition.
It also earned them a spot at Pitchfork’s two-day Offline Festival in March, a show that included the likes of J Masics. They apparently played a pretty good set, as they’re heading to Chicago for Pitchfork’s big fest this July, along with such acts as Animal Collective, Neko Case, Guided by Voices and Thurston Moore. That’s some good company to keep, and they’ll also be joined by Kurt Vile and Violators, a Philly outfit that really took off last year.
Locally, R5 Productions is joining WXPN in putting together a special Sun Airway show in the First Unitarian’s gorgeous sanctuary space on June 3.
With an opening set by Baltimore’s Dustin Wong (cool guitar-looping atmospherics) and some wild video projection from the Klip Collective’s Ricardo Rivera, it promises to be an interesting show and a great showcase for this evolving band. ••
Check it out
Who: Sun Airway, Dustin Wong
What: Philly bliss pop
Where: First Unitarian Church, 22nd and Chestnut
When: Friday, June 3, at 8 p.m.