The elegantly mellifluous but masterfully reserved manner in which this record opens sets the tone for its entire duration. It exists within its own time frame, atmosphere and climate. It will toy with you relentlessly and move you to the verge of tears in seconds. When the promo landed, I was genuinely excited at the prospect of a follow up to 2011’s wondrous ‘Burst Apart’. It went on instantly, and it went on loud. And I was gone. ‘Familiars’ is an album which proceeds very much at its own pace, with songs slowly meshing rather than bursting into life. It is a far cry from the angular aches of the Brooklyn band’s breakthrough release, 2009’s ‘Hospice’, although I don’t consider that to be a bad thing.
The nuanced murmur of the horns, almost vocal in their presence, is what truly asserts this album’s staggering beauty. The arrangements are an exercise in restraint, a perfect foil for the slinky soul sweep of what had come before, from which this record feels a natural evolution. The notion of a second voice is explored fully in the lyrics, with frontman Peter Silberman opting to write of a world in which we can appear to ourselves, offering the advice that our self-awareness filters. That the band were poring over a selection of seminal jazz and soul records in the early stages of recording this album is perhaps reflected in the loose, hypnotic shuffle of tracks like ‘Hotel’ and ‘Intruders’ and the warmly enveloping ‘Parade’. The latter is arguably the pinnacle of ‘Familiars’, an emphatic, soaring vocal from Silberman sitting atop a shimmering Muscle Shoals swagger. It is one of those rare songs that can cause me to stop my first listen to an album and play it over – and, on this occasion, over and over – again because of its striking impact.
After a largely very positive critical response to its predecessor, ‘Familiars’ was gently diminished by many as being ‘more of the same’ and seemed to come off unfavourably in comparison. I find this genuinely confusing as, in those early weeks of listening prior to reading anyone else’s thoughts, I truly found this to be a logical refinement and progression of the hypnotically emotive sound upon which they had previously alighted. Make no mistake, ‘Burst Apart’ is a magical album, but I would emphatically argue that this one surpasses it. Little moments like the subdued piano on the opener ‘Palace’ or the aching, stuttering horns on ‘Refuge’ highlight the sparkling charms of this release. The languid sonic landscape which pervades these nine songs has the same escapist clout of great literature or deserted hillsides. This is the sort of album to make you weepy in the hazy blur of the wee small hours and emboldened in the face of trying times.