Focusing the sound

With age comes simplicity for Boulder Acoustic Society

Cory O'Brien | Boulder Weekly

After eight years in the Americana band Boulder Acoustic Society, multi-instrumentalist Aaron Keim has picked up on a fundamental truth of aging.

“As the years go by, it seems like the older we get, the simpler we want things to be,” Keim says wistfully.

With their 2010 five-song EP Champion of Disaster and 2009’s excellent full-length Punchline, Boulder Acoustic Society transformed from a group of classically trained smart-alecks aping their way through the history of American music into a dusty folk band belting out heartfelt Americana. Their early albums bore all the classic marks of music majors. They were technically proficient and musically adventurous, but they were also emotionally distant and the band often seemed to be stretched too thin, as if they were unwilling to embrace any one song or genre with a straight face. There were a lot of great things going on in early Boulder Acoustic Society albums, but they often felt like an old-timey version of the world-class goof-offs in Ween.

“When we started out, we weren’t really invested in the band,” admits Keim. “We would play anything. But eventually, we realized that by being the people who would play anything, we weren’t really doing anything right.”

The transition began in earnest with Punchline.

Perhaps freed from youthful insecurities that valued technicality over emotional resonance, the album is a mature blend of gypsy waltzes, barnyard foot-stompers and heart-on-your sleeve ballads that builds off of the group’s formal training rather than relying on it. There are still hints of the complex arrangements that drove earlier releases, but Punchline adds simplicity and storytelling to Boulder Acoustic Society’s already impressive bag of tricks. It also walks the fine line between playfulness and sincerity that has made Americana such an enduring genre over the years.

“We all spent so much time playing jazz and classical in high school and college and with jazz and classical music, the focus is on virtuosity and less on emotional content,” Keim says. “I think Americana fits our personalities more. It kind of grabbed us as a mixture of personal expression and simplicity.”

Champion of Disaster strips things down even further, trading the dizzying energy and old-time spirit of genre-hoppers like Punchline or 2008’s The Caged Bird for subtle moodiness and emotional punch. Champion of Disaster is a grounded, beautiful morsel of indie-folk that finds Boulder Acoustic Society honing in on a sound and then exploring the possibilities within that sound’s framework. There is still room for experimentation, such as the murky organ jam on the title track, but the strength of the EP can be found in the confessional lyrics of “Where Have the Good Ones Gone” or the levee-breaking final chorus on the folk rock earworm “How Many Times a Day.”

In a sense, Champion of Disaster could signify a significant shift in philosophy for the band. While recent albums contain occasional traces of punk snarl and indie sheen, they are essentially records that look to the past for inspiration. Champion of Disaster, however, is firmly rooted in the present. Ironically, that modern feel to the EP could be a result of the band’s tastes expanding as they get older.

“Last week we were driving and we put one of those top 40 stations, 95.7 The Party, on the radio,” recalls Keim, “and we ended up listening to it for two hours. A lot of people think that musicians who aren’t making super-mainstream music can’t appreciate that type of music, but I’ve realized as I get older that a hit is a hit, and you can really learn from anything.”

Despite all that exposure to 95.7 The Party, Boulder Acoustic Society is still committed to Americana, even if a few more hooks slip into the music. The beauty of the genre is that it is so far-reaching that even after eight years, Boulder Acoustic Society is only scratching the surface of where it can take them musically. The genre’s versatility will be on display this week at the inaugural Pearl Street Music and Arts Festival, which in addition to Boulder Acoustic Society will feature Dr. Dog, Mason Jennings, The Head and the Heart, Gregory Alan Isakov and Paper Bird. All the acts, while musically diverse, lean heavily on Americana for inspiration.

“You look at jazz, because it’s such an old music form; two jazz musicians can sound completely different,” says Keim. “An avant-garde musician isn’t going to sound anything like Duke Ellington, but it’s all jazz. I think people are just starting to realize that’s what Americana is like now. It’s all based in the same tradition and culture, but the music can go in so many different directions.”

As for the direction of Boulder Acoustic Society, Keim indicates that the band is going to continue down the simple path.

“Every year, we are trying to strip it down more and more,” he says.