Insert joke about judging a book by its cover, in reference to a band who calls themselves The Next Great American Novelist -- somewhere the ego of Dave Eggers shudders. The trio of indie rockers from Brooklyn is the brainchild of lead singer-songwriter Sean Cahill, and their moniker may indeed be tongue-in-cheek enough to stand up to the irony. Cahill left his college classical guitar program after becoming disillusioned by the academic approach, and later found himself working in life insurance and playing a solo show in Bushwick. He was prepared to hang it all up after that performance, before a chance meeting with producer and future bandmate Jason Cummings revived those efforts. This partnership came after their first album, 2014’s I’ll See You in the Art You Love, a tightly woven album that leans acoustic indie-folk in the vein of stated influences like Elliott Smith and Pedro The Lion, described as “emo-folk born of alcohol-crutched post-collegiate depression.” For the record, I don’t see any problems with that angle.
The group’s latest record follows six years of energetic psych-rock live shows that built to a new crescendo with the release of Careless Moon in the fall of 2020. On the surface, the album is thoroughly unobtrusive indie fare, like a pop-leaning mix of Band of Horses and whatever record execs wanted Modest Mouse to be after “Float On.” It’s beautifully produced and performed, with instruments entwined together with that floaty wonder that comes from dedication to the studio sessions. While I’m occasionally finding reasons to be bored, I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying NGAN in this form.
"Bad Animation" takes a first-act break for Cahill to croon solo for a good twenty seconds -- he has a fantastic voice, that much isn't up for debate. It occasionally gives off aspirational rockstar vibes that don't quite resonate with me, even if they have the talent and Big Apple mystique to back it up. The lead single "Baby Duck Song" has some tacky inspiration (“can I write a song about something I don’t care about?”), but has charming touches of The Sea and Cake. “Gravity’s Rainbow” doesn’t tackle the immense complexities of the Pynchon novel, but the chorus is downright infectious. “It’s Been You” brings all the elements together flawlessly for a backyard summer ballad, and “Kubler” is a slow-burning jam that could even be a late-career New Amsterdams song with its saccharine folk-country tones.
It’s hard to find any honest downsides to Careless Moon overall; Cahill and company are clearly strong musicians and perform their brand of rock phenomenally well. There is a lot to enjoy about this record, at times in a backseat-of-an-Uber kind of way, but it’s difficult to paint it into a single corner. Each time you listen, you’re bound to find more moments that make you perk up and praise their vantage point more than expected. The numerical score shouldn’t be the main takeaway here, and their intricate live shows should be a welcome return someday soon.