UVA’s alumni magazine arrived in the mail the other day. On the front, in text that wraps around Dave Matthews’ balding head like a halo, is the title of the cover article: “Rockin’ The Grounds.” Inside, after profiles of Wahoo rockers ranging from Skip Castro and SGGL to Pavement and Parachute, a sidebar article asks “What’s next?” In an accompanying photo, Astronomers bassist Alexandra Angelich (a graduating Hoo) is raising her instrument over her head, as if to say, “I’ve got the answer right here.”
Angelich and her bandmates—Nate Bolling, David Brear and Graham Partridge—are now sharing that answer with the masses in the form of Size Matters, their first full-length album and the follow-up to 2009’s Think Fast! EP. While that first release made good on its title by packing an immediate sonic punch, Size Matters finds the band opting to gaze at the stars rather than aim for them. With that more pensive and laid-back approach, the curves and dynamics of the band’s music have space to bend and sway.
That breathing room results in some amazing, quiet moments, starting with a beautiful breakdown in the middle of opening track “The Great Attractor,” which slows to an ambient lull before the guitars rev back up. Perhaps the best such moment is on “Saccharin,” when the band completely drops its instrumentation for an interlude of a cappella vocals and handclaps.
“Sharpshooter” is probably the album’s most single-worthy track, inviting easy comparisons to bands like The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand and Muse. But just when it seems like they might start gunning for the modern rock charts, Astronomers follow with “Tatterdemalion,” a track as odd and off-kilter as its title, with guitars ringing out like sirens and crunching drums driving it to an eerie close. The two-part suite of “The Gardener” is no less daring, moving from raw piano and vocals to a tense feedback-fueled climax before throwing down a zipping 45-second coda that’s over before you can figure out whether it fits or not.
On “A Toast to Finding Out,” the penultimate track, Bolling takes up a Thom Yorke-esque falsetto to belt out a moving romantic lament. Then the band flips things again, finishing with “Spectral Theorem,” a psychedelic spoken word jam that references the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for sensory perception, conscious thought, spatial reasoning and motor commands.
On Size Matters, rather than running with “bigger is better,” Astronomers show that variation is key. Their neocortices are hard at work in these songs, giving the album space, consciousness and movement. If they had materialized in the ’70s, maybe Astronomers would have rocked a massive drunken crowd at Easters. If they had sprung from the late ’80s they might have gotten weird in a 14th Street basement with Stephen Malkmus and David Berman. Today, though, Size Matters places Astronomers in a constellation of local bands making interesting and nuanced rock music, somewhere near the punk fist-bobbing of the Invisible Hand, the rocketing explorations of Corsair and the glam-y glow of the Borrowed Beams of Light.