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Athens' Summer Hymns look backward

Latest album a learning experience

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It took Athens musician Zachary Gresham four years to complete Backward Masks, the latest in a series of critically acclaimed albums under the guise Summer Hymns. "I learned a lot of lessons doing this last record. It's not going to take that long for the next one," Gresham says. "That's not the way I want to work in the future. It's too frustrating."

The making of Backward Masks began shortly before Summer Hymns, a group led by Gresham, went on tour to support 2003's Clemency. "Half of the songs on that tour were new songs," he remembers. After the group came home, two of its members departed, leaving just drummer Philip Brown and bassist Chris Riser. Meanwhile Gresham kept writing, making it difficult to decide which songs to use for the album. Money problems compounded the delay. "After a certain amount of time, we didn't want to put out an album just for the sake of fulfilling a time line. We wanted to wait and put out an album that we were really happy with," Gresham says.

With all of the labor and work it took to produce, one would expect Backward Masks to be an elaborate tour de force of sounds and words. In fact, like all of Summer Hymns recordings, it is deceptively simple. The predominant mood is easygoing soft rock, and the musicianship is excellent. Check the piano tickling in the background of "Pity and Envy," or the light guitar solo that anchors "Bombay Brown Indian Ink." "All around the world it seems that everyone's going crazy," he sings on "Darkness Comes." His pronunciation of the word "crazy," cast in a tone reminiscent of Robert Wyatt, seemingly evaporates into air. "All I want in life is love, to learn to give, to take away some pain," he continues. The lovelorn lyrics are dreams, a way to escape the hardship of daily existence.

"Much of that record reflects a dark period in my life," Gresham says without elaborating on the details. "I like to use music as a way to exorcise certain things, and even to understand it. I mean, sometimes I don't really know exactly how I feel until a year after I've written a song, and I start to decode what I might be trying to unconsciously tell myself."

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