First Listen: Gem Club, 'In Roses'

Jan 12, 2014
Originally published on January 28, 2014 8:00 pm

Roses are beautiful and alluring, but they're often seen in the saddest of settings: hospitals, funerals. The music of Gem Club is a bit like that, mixing beauty and melancholy. One makes you appreciate the other, so it's a dynamic that works perfectly on the band's second album, appropriately titled In Roses.

Built around piano, cello and voice, Gem Club got its start a few years ago in Boston. The main voice and author of the group's woe and splendor is Christopher Barnes, who sets the tone alongside cellist Kristen Drymala and singer Ieva Berberian; together, they made some of my favorite music of 2011 on their debut full-length Breakers.

While Gem Club primarily recorded Breakers in Barnes' bedroom studio, this time they traveled to San Francisco to lay down tracks in John Vanderslice's all-analog Tiny Telephone studios. Barnes worked closely with Minna Choi, a string arranger and music director for the Magik*Magik Orchestra, the studio's de facto house band. Together, Barnes and Choi helped discover new intricacies in this music, which sounds more resplendent with more ambient passages. The voices and cello are woven together perfectly.

Gem Club's first record was a perfect late-night soundtrack, and In Roses is its perfectly elegant sequel. It'll be a close companion for thoughtful, beautiful times in 2014.

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And let's review some music now. NPR music's First Listen at gives you the chance to hear an upcoming album in its entirety before it is released. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton helped choose the featured albums. They're the hosts of NPR's ALL SONGS CONSIDERED. Today, Bob and Robin have a hypnotic new release from the Boston-based group Gem Club. It's called "In Roses."

BOB BOILEN, BYLINE: Robin Hilton, what do you think of when you think of roses?

ROBIN HILTON, BYLINE: They're very beautiful and thorny, covered in thorns.

BOILEN: Good, 'cause that notion of the rose is right in the title of Gem Club. It's called "In Roses" and the rose is both full of sadness and beauty, right? The hospital, sickness, love, all those things, right in this music.


HILTON: Yeah, so the songs are very, very beautiful and at some times very sad. The previous record this band Gem Club put out was a bedroom recording. This one they did in the studio all to analog equipment, and they got an orchestra, a house orchestra to play with them, so it's very lush, and some of these songs, you can hear how the music just sort of swells and then gently lingers.


BOILEN: So this song, "Polly" Christopher Barnes, the writer of these songs, is talking about his aunt. She had Alzheimer's. He, as a young guy, didn't visit her, didn't do the things that we all should do to help. He's kind of full of regrets. It's about life not turning out quite the way you expect it to turn out.

HILTON: Yeah. The previous record was very inward looking. This one's very outward looking. One of the songs, called "Soft Season," is about Joey Stefano. He's a gay adult movie actor from the early '90s who died of a drug overdose when he was just 26 years old. And on this song, "Soft Season" Christopher Barnes captures that whole notion of beauty and pain when he says, Might try to hurt me, might try to love me too much.


BOILEN: You hear Christopher Barnes' voice, but right behind him you hear this ghost voice, he calls it. This is Ieva Berberian. She sort of doubles his voice and it's a really beautiful effect. But not only that, they then double their own voices again when they do the recording and there's this weird, wonderful mystery about the sound of this record.

This whole record has this vibe. It changes the room when you put this record on.


INSKEEP: Consider the room changed. That was ALL SONGS CONSIDERED hosts Robin Hilton and Bob Boilen. And you can hear the full album at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.