Fiver with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition usurps expectations while upholding tradition.
A little over a year ago, Fiver‘s Simone Schmidt explained to NOW Magazine the genesis of their collaboration with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition and their first EP, You Wanted Country? Vol. 1: “I’m interested in pushing [the traditions of country music] instrumentally. That doesn’t mean novel production techniques, it’s actually about the playing. You Wanted Country? is like an introduction to us at our most conservative, and forthcoming recordings will be an evolving take on country music.” True to their word, Fiver with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition finds Schmidt and the trio of Bianca Palmer (on drums and percussion), Nick Dourado (on lap steel, piano, vibes, and sax), and Jeremy Costello (on vocals, synths, and bass) emerging after a musical metamorphosis with an album of original songs that contort country’s musical conventions almost beyond recognition.
If you’re like me, it may take a couple of passes over Fiver with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition to understand that the record’s “countryness” is more about how it feels than how it sounds. Country has always teetered on the brink of caricature, its most popular and successful acts rooting themselves in the American south, blanketing their words with references to religion and God, booze and blue-collar values, and nostalgia rooted in the good old days when everyday folk rose to the occasion and stuck it to the system. With these new songs, Schmidt and the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition carry the heart of the tradition forward while abandoning country’s polarizing, “othering” attitudes. “Leaning Hard (On My Peripheral Vision)” has a lot of the musical hallmarks associated with country, while lyrically taking on long-held pillars of systemic racism that espouses peace and equality as a virtue but refuses to turn words into actions.
But that’s just one interpretation of Schmidt’s words; as with most country music, Fiver with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition is rife with the potential for multiple interpretations and double meanings. How you read “June Like A Bug” is up to you, but it’s hard not to imagine the song as a response to last June’s uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder when you hear lines like “June like a bug flung from a screen / Lying on it’s back some helpless thing / Wings aren’t wings beneath the weight / Ain’t coming back from that terrible fate.”
For all the talk of reinvention, there’s a surprisingly authentic feel to the record. Palmer, Dourado, and Costello are renowned for their improvisational fluidity. The same ease and looseness the trio brings to their work with Beverly Glenn-Copeland are evidenced in the way “Yeah But Uhh Hey” teases listeners with a free-jazz introduction before breaking into a finger-snapping gallop. Schmidt’s phrasing and inflections throughout “Jr Wreck” (but very specifically on the opening lines: “My Jr. Wreck I’ve known you a while now / To piss in the fountain as if you’re brewing me tea,”) and the steady, sombre 3/4 tempo Palmer lays down from the outset drips with a “shoulda known better, don’t got no one to blame but me” despondency that’s straight out of the country music handbook.
And yet, there’s an intangible quality radiating throughout the record, refracting the familiar and presenting it in new ways. Fiver with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition usurps expectations while upholding tradition. Theirs is a highly studied and considered album that requires as much from the listener as the creators put into it. It is an investment worth the effort; When Schmidt, Palmer, Dourado, and Costello click, the result is spontaneous combustion.