In the fourteen years since their first album, Atmosphere has created a unique cultural space for themselves. They’ve built up a huge audience on their own terms, and played a big part in putting Minneapolis on the map. For all they’ve done, though, it seems like everybody has a different idea as to what role they should be playing and what they do best. Personally, I try to stay away from placing these sorts of expectations on musicians – it just sets you up for disappointment. I don’t want them to repeat Overcast or Sevens Travels or anything else they’ve already done – I’ve got those albums. Just try something, and if it works, great. If not, at least you’re mixing things up and not rehashing past successes.

Listening to The Family Sign, it’s an interesting album, and not what I was expecting, having listened to recent EPs. Guitar and keyboard are much more front and center than on previous efforts. Atmosphere is actually credited as a four-piece unit on this album, including Erik Anderson on keys and Nick Collins on guitar, as opposed to the usual duo of emcee Slug and producer Ant. The result is and album that comes across as a singer-songwriter album as much as a hip hop album. There aren’t a lot of songs on here that are going to jump out and grab you with banging beats and catchy hooks, with the exception of “She’s Enough.” This is an album that will slowly grow on you. It’s full of stories, and in most cases Slug does a good job of painting pictures of relationships and exploring emotional connections between people. The only song I didn’t care for is “Bad Bad Daddy,” which from the title to the lyrics are just so far over the top in its portrayal of an abusive father that I can’t take it seriously. Fortunately, this is the exception and not the rule, and for the majority of the album Slug is a very good story teller. “Became” plays out almost like a Jack London short story in its tale of a camping trip gone wrong. The highs definitely outweigh the lows here.

Atmosphere garnered a devoted fan base, and they’ve been very good to their fans over the years. On an album titled The Family Sign, I was expecting more of a celebration of fans and musicians as family, not such a dark and introspective collection of songs. Once I was able to clear these expectations from my head and give it fresh ears, The Family Sign does reward patient listeners. I wasn’t blown away like the first time I put on “Cats Vans Bags,” but I have a feeling that The Family Sign is going to slowly work its way into my rotation. As for the celebration, I’ll see them on tour, where I’m sure they’ve already gotten things under way.