Copeland is a band that has often slipped right under the radar with me.
I don’t want to understate how much I like them. They’re a dreamy pop band that gets both parts of that equation right, and in their best moments, they create transcendent music, the type that can make you feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience. The greatest weapon in their arsenal has always been the high, perfect voice of Aaron Marsh, who also serves as producer and sonic architect. They began in Lakeland, Florida as more of an indie-rock outfit, filling two albums with sweet melodies and ringing guitars, before taking a more subdued, more ethereal direction.
I had problems with that direction at first, panning the band’s third record Eat, Sleep, Repeat without giving it a thorough listen. Now, of course, I think of that album as a minor masterpiece, one that kick-started Copeland’s evolution into something much more interesting. So aside from that minor speed bump, I have always liked this band. But I have never considered them particularly important, or particularly ambitious. I never thought of them as even aiming for the top of my favorites list, but rather content to make quiet, delightful contributions to my musical background.
And when Copeland broke up in 2008, I figured that’s all they would ever be to me. I never imagined that six years later they would reunite and do something nigh-on revolutionary, something that I can’t stop listening to. But here we are – the sixth Copeland album, Ixora, is so fascinating that I’m going to review it three times. The full version of this album is such a bold idea, and took so much work to conceive and pull off, that it’s worth some extra space. That this idea comes from a band I had never expected much from is stunning, and true to form, they’ve been pretty modest about it. So here’s some rightly earned praise.
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Let’s say this right up front: Ixora is a beautiful record.
This is the band’s first effort in six years, following an extended hiatus. But in many ways, they’ve picked right up and continued their evolution. All of these new songs weave fragile and lovely atmospheres, each aiming for a lush, yet spare beauty. Copeland stopped being a rock band a while ago – guitars now are used either as sparse skeletons or as soaring flourishes. Aaron Marsh’s piano takes center stage more often now, but mostly Copeland focus on layering sounds to create gorgeous, wispy, cloud-like things.
They’ve been headed this way for three albums now, and Ixora is the culmination point. None of these songs are immediate – you won’t be humming any of them after one listen. They’re all patient, deeper rivers, and you need to get used to them. Marsh’s voice is still absurdly wonderful, but he doesn’t push it here – the melodies on Ixora are sweet and pretty, but they don’t carry these songs the way Copeland melodies often do. Listen a few times, though, and you’ll hear just how beautiful a song like “Erase” is, particularly when Marsh leaps up into that spine-tingling falsetto.
The pleasures on Ixora are mostly subtle. There are glorious climaxes – “Erase” has one, before the song disintegrates into a trembling string coda. “Lavender” starts off almost danceable, with a pulsing, programmed beat and a thick synth bass line, but the actual song is much dreamier, breaking down in the middle for a piano bridge and gracing the synth-pop bed with a meandering melody that never breaks out. Opener “Have I Always Loved You” starts with delicate acoustic guitar and a breathy “ah-ah” from Marsh that sets the tone. It takes nearly 90 seconds for more instruments to appear, and even when they do, the song remains a simple welcome.
“Ordinary” is nothing but piano and Marsh’s breathtaking voice, singing a simple, luxurious song about being comfortable in love. It leads into the smooth “Like a Lie,” with its almost-funk chorus. “Feels like a lie when I hold you, feels like a lie but it comes true,” Marsh sings over electric piano and his own swooping bass line. Even this is remarkably restrained, only a few keyboard notes to brighten its corners. The remainder of the album is filled with intricate, layered pieces, from the ever-building “Chiromancer” to the absolutely extraordinary “World Turn,” which for most of its running time is as fragile as a baby bird. (There’s even a completely non-cheesy saxophone solo.)
The album proper ends with a love song, “In Her Arms You Will Never Starve,” albeit one with darker overtones: “In your darkest hour, should storms rage around you, her love will be a shelter and she will pull you under…” The orchestrations on this song are gorgeous, and Marsh has rarely sounded warmer. There’s a bonus track on the deluxe edition called “Like I Want You,” and its inclusion only sharpens those dark overtones. It’s a song of leaving: “And when I turn to see you’ve left me here, it takes my breath away, it’s taken all my heart to love you…” The guest vocals by Steff Keoppen fit in perfectly.
It took a while for me to love Ixora, but I absolutely do. It’s the kind of album that needs to seep in, to make its home in your heart in its own time. Once it does, it’s impossible to deny how lovely it is. These songs will not grab you – most of them barely assert themselves, preferring that you come to them, unguarded. The care that Marsh and company have taken with the sound of this record is incredible, and even when the songs don’t immediately draw you in, the sheer physical depth of the album will. Take the time to soak it in, and Ixora emerges as the most beautiful thing Copeland has ever made.
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So that’s the version of Ixora that you can find in the stores, and it’s worth buying. But you’re only getting one-third of the experience.
Ixora was funded through pre-orders, and those who ponied up the extra cash received what the band calls the Twin Version of the record. And here is where I think Copeland’s trademark humility is working against them, because the Twin idea is absolutely brilliant. Nestled inside the sturdy tin box is a second version of Ixora – all 11 songs, arranged in completely different ways. And while it is intended as a companion piece, Twin stands up as a record all its own, one that is often just as beautiful as its counterpart.
Part of the reason is that Twin is mostly even more spare and delicate than Ixora. “Disjointed,” in this case, moves forward on a backwards pulse, with some light percussion surrounding it, and making way for the vibes and strings. It transforms what was the band’s best bet for a single into a fascinating fantasia. (Neither version of “Disjointed” sounds even slightly disjointed, for the record.) “Erase” is even prettier on Twin, steadfastly refusing to build up – it’s acoustic guitars, some lovely effects and Marsh’s voice, and that’s about it. The part of the song propelled by drums on Ixora is instead almost naked, and you can hear the contours of Marsh’s falsetto. And the string coda is replaced by a lovely final verse.
The exception to the softer-and-quieter rule is “Ordinary,” which on Twin is a full-band effort with shuffling drums, thumping bass and vocal harmonies. It’s a thoroughly different spin on the song, though it is recognizably the same one. “Like a Lie,” as well, begins fuller, with electronic drums and electric piano setting a dusky mood. Fascinatingly, this version of “Like a Lie” contains no vocals until the chorus, and even then it only seems to provide a counterpoint to the main melody on Ixora. It’s a bizarre, yet enjoyable listen, the only thing on Twin that feels like a remix.
“World Turn” is just as breathtaking on Twin as it is on Ixora, performed here on piano with an insistent electronic drumbeat in the background. The chorus this time is sung in wispy, treated harmony, and it’ll raise the hair on your neck. (And yes, the saxophone solo still works.) I think I like the Twin version of “In Her Arms You Will Never Starve” better – it’s more of a dirge, with slow piano, low keys and haunting, echo-y vocals. The string lines here are more sorrowful, and it feels like more of the sad lament I think it is.
After listening to Ixora for so long, Twin is an absolutely fascinating thing, like the version of the album that would have been released in a parallel universe. This goes beyond mere remixes or acoustic versions – Twin sports completely different takes on these 11 songs, teasing out new nuances in each one. It may not be quite the complete picture that Ixora is, and for the most part I agree that the band issued the correct versions on the main disc, but it’s pretty wonderful.
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But wait, there’s more (that’s not sold in any store).
By now you’ve probably guessed the most brilliant part of the Twin concept – the two versions of Ixora are meant to be played together, simultaneously. The liner notes say that doing so will create a third version of the album, and man, the liner notes do not lie.
The first night I received my Twin Version package, I did what the band asked. I used two CD players, situated on different sides of the room, and played both discs at the same time. It was difficult to get them to line up, since every player has a different lead time for its pause function, but when I could make it work, it was magical. The new arrangements on Twin folded seamlessly over the originals, filling in gaps and completing the picture. At times it was like doing a jigsaw puzzle in my head, hearing how one vocal line meshed with another in perfect harmony, or noting when the differing string arrangements complemented each other.
Listening to the quadrophonic version of Ixora was, no joke, my favorite musical moment of this year so far. Since then, I enlisted a friend to make a combined version of the record, one with Ixora in the left speaker and Twin in the right. Listening to it is still remarkable, and if I place my speakers far enough apart, it will still give the quadrophonic effect the band was after. What’s interesting to me is how completely this new version transforms Ixora. What was once, in both versions, a delicate and sparse record is, in this combined form, Copeland’s version of SMiLE. There’s just so much happening in each track, and it all works so well.
The only weakness – and it barely qualifies as such – is that for every quieter moment on one of the discs, the other compensates with a larger arrangement, so that every single second of the combined Ixora is bursting with sound. It’s such incredible, colorful sound that it hardly matters, but the bigger arrangements turn Ixora into a totally different record. The piano that makes up all of “Ordinary” on the main album is now an accenting instrument in the full band arrangement from Twin. The spare guitar and voice version of “World Turn” is now folded into Twin’s electronic beat take, and the new version isn’t quite as haunting as either of its components. The new version of “In Her Arms You Will Never Starve” is more triumphant and vibrant than either of the others.
But this is a minor issue, since the original uncombined versions are here to be played and enjoyed as well. I love how the chorus vocals of “Like a Lie” now merge into a call-and-response, almost turning it into a different song. I love how the piano and acoustic guitar dance off of each other in the opening moments of “Chiromancer.” I love how the string coda, so isolated on Ixora, now serves as the perfect backdrop to the added verse on “Erase.” I adore this new version of “World Turn,” Marsh’s aching lead vocal meshing with the more ethereal harmonies on Twin. (And for the third time, the saxophone solo is great.) And I love that this combined, full, rich version of Ixora evolves Copeland even further, turning them into astonishing studio wizards.
Most of all, I find this whole idea bold and amazing. The only analogue I can think of is Zaireeka, the Flaming Lips album from 1997 that came on four CDs that were meant to be played at the same time. But none of the four Zaireeka discs were intended to stand alone. That’s where Copeland have pulled off a coup – the two Ixora discs are swell listens on their own, betraying no evidence that they are parts of a whole, and they seamlessly integrate into a third version of the album. I’ve never heard anything like it.
As far as I know, the Twin Version is only available from the band, in limited quantities. I have no idea if you can still get it. But if you can, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Go here. Ixora, in all its forms, is a most welcome return for Copeland, a band I will never again underestimate.
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Next week, who knows? But after that, the great Quiet Company. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.