In 2006, a few acoustic demos popped up on the usual outlets (myspace, purevolume) from Stephen Christian, making fans everywhere thrilled at the thought of a solo project from Anberlin's lead vocalist. Three years later, we finally have an album available under the moniker Anchor & Braille, featuring all new versions of the songs in those demos along with plenty of brand new songs too. The music is very soft and chill, mostly piano-based, with a lot of layered electric guitars, and Christian is as lyrically brilliant as ever.
Of course, the other thing people tend to know about this album is that it was produced by Aaron Marsh, the lead singer of Copeland, and this is obvious throughout the album. Every time I listen to "Blur," I'm thrown off once Stephen's vocals start because the piano is so distinctly Aaron's that it sounds strange to hear someone else singing over it. This is not to say that it's a bad sound. No, not at all. Just that as a big Copeland fan, it took a little getting used to for me.
Oddly, it seems the songs I already knew tend to be my favorites on this record. The first Stephen Christian demo I heard was an acoustic song called, "In Retrospect It Was Obviously Hell." This song is fleshed out on this album as "Inretrospect," with strings, piano, drums, an electric guitar, and even bells, which makes it sound fantastic, but no matter what the music sounded like, the song would still be really moving just from the great vocal melody on the chorus and the deeply personal lyrics that struggle with a broken relationship. "Sleep. When We Die," is piano-based love song that sings, "We'll sleep when we die, so just lay awake with me here all night." A female vocal with heavy effects is added to the bridge along with a thick bass and a soft, jazzy trumpet. The closing song, "Sheet Music/ Sheet Music," sounds a lot better this time around. The demo didn't really work in my opinion, but this version makes much more sense now that the piano, strings, and drums have all been fully developed, turning it into one of my standout tracks for this release. The slow tempo and the soaring chorus blend beautifully for a powerful and moving closer.
As for the new songs, there's a lot of gems on this album. "Like Steps in a Dance" is upbeat and maybe even a little dancy with a happy falsetto chorus to match the fast drums and bright piano. Christian and Marsh co-wrote, "Summer Tongues," which brings in all of Marsh's guitar and horn tricks to make a great indie-pop track with more quality love song lyrics (something that seems to be strangely absent in a lot of indie rock these days). A few songs, such as "Calm, Calm, Calm Yourself," don't really work for me just because the vocal melodies could have been better worked out. This particular track is a bit goofy on the chorus, but it certainly comes nowhere close to ruining the album. In fact, it's not even a bad song. It just isn't really up to the quality found elsewhere on Felt.
As expected, Aaron Marsh offers some guest vocals on the album, but he actually only does so on the bridge of "Forget Love..." This was a good choice, because if he had sung a lot more, Anchor & Braille would have ceased to be a true Stephen Christian solo album and instead become a side project with Aaron Marsh. Now, of course, that probably would have been a killer album, but it was not the intent for Felt, and these guys did a good job keeping that balance.
Overall: Taking a break from Anberlin, Stephen Christian has penned an album that explores the softer side of his musical creativity and a more introspective side to his lyrical poeticism. Songs are vague yet personal, making it easy for the listener to relate in some way to most of the tracks. Aaron Marsh's production really added a lot to the indie-pop sounds of this piano-based record, and he was a good fit for what Anchor & Braille seems to be doing. -- Indie Vision Music, September 5, 2009
Nearly 5 years in the making, the debut release from Anchor & Braille, 'Felt', has arrived. Produced by Aaron Marsh of Copeland, with vocals coming from up and coming band Anberlin, the album is a fuse of the 2 minds.
From the first track to the last, there is a genuine feeling of elegance and grace about the album, from the lively debut single 'Like Steps In A Dance', to the powerful yet classy 'Summer Tongues'.
What makes this album dance with such sonic grace however, apart from Christian's soaring vocals, is the light use of brass and string instruments. Had they been over used, they would have lost impact, but the slight touches we get in 'Rust' and 'Introspect' really make for a great listening experience.
Because the album feels, in the most, very natural, it can be easy to forget the brilliant production work of Aaron Marsh. It would of been very easy to do what Neil Avron did on Anberlin's 'New Surrender' and wildly over produce, but he didn't, instead he did what every good producer should do, and kept the album honest to it's true sound and feeling.
My only slight criticism is on the side of percussion, sometimes it feels like the drums were thought of last, and simply dumped on top. There are some moments when they feel very disjointed from the song, and very lackluster indeed. But the songs themselves are so beautiful, it's not enough of a problem to take that much away from them. // 9
Lyrics and Singing: Well, with the exception of 'New Surrender', Stephen Christian has written some of the most truthful, beautifully crafted lyrics around on the modern music scene.
They are honest, heartfelt, and really strike a chord inside, no matter what the topic. What I love about Stephen's work, is that they can be so simple, but so incredibly elegant, without being crass or patronizing, for example, 'I can tell when your lying babe, your lips move again'.
As for the vocal talent of the man himself, well, perfection is not often a word that can be used in modern music, but that's the only way of describing it. Every note of every song hit perfectly, and with conviction. It soars above, but never overpowers. It is smooth, natural, and full of emotion. There is nothing more we could of asked of Stephen on this album. // 10
Impression: I, like many, have been waiting a long time for this album. Expectations were high, and yet no one ever feared it would be anything other than excellent. The songs are endearing, none more so than 'Calm, Calm, Calm Yourself', which never fails to make me smile every time I hear it. 'Forget Love', which is one of my favorite tracks from the album, really showcases what this album has to offer, especially the small section where Marsh and Christian sing together; a combination made in heaven.
Although a totally different style to 'Anberlin', Anchor & Braille's album has in essence what 'New Surrender' lacked; soul, emotion, and honesty. The vocals sound natural, and lyrically it is as passionate as 'Cities', but feels much more intimate.
However, as happy as this album makes me feel, it also makes me feel sad. It took 5 years to record and release this album, due to commitments with Anberlin. And now Anberlin have finally hit the big time, we have to wonder how long it will be before the next Anchor & Braille album, or even if there will be a follow up.
But for now, we can sit back and revel in the glory that is 'Felt'. // 10 -- Ultimate-Guitar.com, August 5, 2009
You have to give Stephen Christian credit - the man is far from your typical rock star. Of course he is best known for his work with scene staples Anberlin, but Christian has a degree in psychology, has written a book, co-founded a non-profit organization, and is in general a supremely nice guy. So when he accumulated a pile of songs that didn't quite fit what Anberlin was doing, it makes sense that Stephen wouldn't take the easy way out. He could certainly tweak the songs enough so they could be peppered amongst future Anberlin releases, but rather than compromise the cohesiveness of those works and the integrity of these compositions, Christian instead decided to give them a proper release under the Anchor & Braille moniker. This was by no means some hasty, overnight project. It is a true labor of love that has been in progress (in some form or another) for almost a decade, and with the quality of Felt, it shows.
Aaron Marsh's hand in this record is readily apparent, as Felt could most easily be described as what a Copeland record would sound like with Stephen Christian on vocals. This is indeed an oversimplification, but it serves as a barometer for what listeners can expect from the album. Those Copeland fans who yearn for the days of Beneath Medicine Tree simplicity will find comfort in the arrangements on Felt, as they retain a bit of the organic allure that has been replaced with slick polish on more recent Copeland efforts. And while Christian's vocals work well with the anthem-minded Anberlin, they seem just as fitting on these minimalist charmers.
"Rust (The Short Story of Mary Agnosia)" starts the record on a mellow, subdued note instrumentally, but allows Christian's plaintive falsetto to shine through and set the tone for the rest of Felt. "Like Steps in a Dance" is a more commercially appealing tune, landing it first-single status, with its bustling percussion undertow and Christian's chorus sounding eerily Aaron Marsh-y. "Blur" and "Introspect" are a gorgeous pair of compositions that take a more patient approach, and the results are stunning, especially on the latter, where Stephen's vocals ebb and flow effortlessly on top of a pitch-perfect arrangement. It is here where Felt goes from being pleasant to being transcendent. Even the most hardened cynics will find it impossible to be unmoved when Christian repeatedly asks, "Is this heaven, or is this hell?" "Summer Tongues" is a lightweight, delicate number that dances on fragile falsettos, and whose subtle guitar strums make me think I wasn't the only one who loved Primitive Radio Gods' "Motor of Joy" from White Hot Peach.
The second half of Felt loses no momentum, as "Wedding/Funeral" is a downright arresting offering. From Christian's laconic verse delivery, to the way he inflates to full projection on the chorus, and an uncommon attention to detail (the trailing background vocal addition at 2:40) that would make Steve Lillywhite's blush, the track is just complete. "Forget Love. I Just Want You To Make Sense To Me Tonight" is a moody, soulful tune highlighted by guest vocals from Aaron Marsh himself. And for those who wondered what Felt might have been without Marsh's oversight, "Sing Out" is probably where it would have gone - more acoustic, more Americana, more folk. The song is a nice divergence from the arc of its precursors, but it will likely make listeners glad that Aaron was there to fluff up the tracks a little. The album wraps up with high marks, as "Sheet Music/Sheet Music" is yet another stirring, timeless expression of splendor, tying the entire package together quite nicely. The record only really loses steam in the middle with the old-fashioned, "Kite"-like "Calm, Calm, Calm Yourself" and "Sleep. When We Die," which feels a little stale for longtime fans that have had the track for years. Still, it does little to dampen the overall excellence of the work.
Fans of Stephen Christian and Aaron Marsh will likely approach Anchor & Braille's Felt with the highest of expectations. Luckily for those followers, their anticipations are rewarded in full, as the record is a stunning achievement. It is a labor of love in the truest sense of the phrase, and it certainly shows. You can hear Christian bleeding for these songs, and it is the sort of passion that elicits goosebumps from listeners ready to be swept up on an emotional journey. It is hard to say if Christian and Marsh will ever compile another record under the Anchor & Braille name, but if not, we will all be thankful to at least have this. -- Absolutepunk.net, August 5, 2009