Asahi’s Head Above Water may be more fittingly titled Head Above Air. The debut full-length from the Seattle sextet is often a statement in just how light and feathery three guitars and four delicate voices can sound while still falling under the umbrella of pop melody. During the course of Low’s, that band has lent a magical and almost religious tone to these sorts of statements and explorations. While Asahi surely could draw comparisons to Low, this band also presents songs that are more traditionally grounded in pop-rock earth, more conscious of slipping a radio-ready hook into a refrain of angelic voices or shimmering guitars.
Some of the best offerings on Head Above Water, howver, may be the ones where the band is more willing to forego the pop formulas and just settle into more free-form or ethereal settings. The opening track, “Baltimore,” is a wonderful example of this, a fragile flower of a song that unfurls itself slowly and layer by layer. It’s here that we’re introduced not only to the band’s instrumental components — three parts interwoven guitar, two parts piano and keyboard, one part bass and subtle drums — but also to its surprising ability to craft vocal bridges and harmonies. Male and female vocals float in and out of the mix, creating a dense but poppy backdrop where emotions cling to the soft inflections of several voiceboxes.
“Westward Expansion” soars through a similar craftiness with vocals, the breathy backing of Kelly McDougall being the perfect supplement to the loneliness in Tomo Nakayama’s voice. When the two sing, “I’ll send you postcards with no return address / No hello, a single stamp / Impersonal pictures of landscapes and freeways and ghost towns for you,” it’s almost spellbinding. Even if the song were repeated 11 times over, constituting the entirety of Head Above Water, you’d think the record was incredible.
An almost equally engaging moment comes with the heartbreaking “Song for an Absent Friend.” Accompanied only by a slowly and carefully finger-picked acoustic guitar, the song’s lyrical delivery is spare, straight-forward, and bathed in a naked beauty, the sort of ballad that would catch the attention of Tim Buckley were he alive to hear it.
After delivering a handful of really impacting and lush pop songs in the first half of Head Above Water, Asahi weakens briefly in its second half, though not for lack of trying. There’s a bridge in the record’s title track where Nakayama and McDougall wail, in unison, “Don’t cling so tightly” in a way that sends chills up your spine. But the bridge falls in the middle of a lackluster song, one that — despite gorgeous offerings from bass and piano — lacks the emotional punch of what surrounds it.
“Every Night,” which follows the title track, is also a slight mishap. Starting with a sample of someone mouthing a hip-hop drum beat, the track never really hits its stride, with out-of-place keyboard noodling and predictable guitar shuffling calling the listener’s attention away from the song’s lyrics and Nakayama’s delivery.
The band redeems itself with the bouncy pop romp of “I Fought the Dragon,” which is a great way to shake the listener up before the atmospheric longing of the “Lights Out,” one of the record’s finest tracks. In that song, Nakayama’s voice is barely a whisper as — amid devastating, almost distant backing vocals and incredible though restrained contributions from guitar — he sings, “Lights out, it’s getting late / We all have somewhere to go / Make no mistake this is not why they’re taking you home.”
The record closes with “Grave of the Fireflies,” a counterpart to the album-opening “Baltimore” that features vocals giving final proof, if any more were needed, that the band must be madly in love with both Grace and Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. A last-minute choral offering from all of the band’s vocalists — part mournful chant and part soft reprise — seals the record and is no less than majestic.
Head Above Water is not without its lulls, but it’s also not without moments that critics would call “transcendent” if displayed by an act with more years of experience or renown under its wings. Without a doubt, the wings this Seattle-based sextet displays on its first record proper will guide it as it grows to join the songs it has already sent off, fluttering and floating, into the sky. – Delusions of Adequacy, Nov. 17, 2003