Thursday, October 21, 2010

Royal Baths: Litanies

Royal Baths
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: Woodsist

For anyone in the mood for an album filled with crushing and absolutely all-fucking-encompassing dread, boredom, cynicism, sickness and death, Litanies comes highly recommended. The song titles - "After Death," "Drudgery," "I Detest," "Bad Heart," "Sinister Sunrise" - leave little room for misinterpretation and, with the exception of closing track "Pleasant Feeling," likely aren't meant to be taken ironically. The debut release from San Francisco quartet Royal Baths - Jeremy Cox, Jigmae Baer, Eden Birch and Eva Hannan - it is about as far removed from the psychedelia most frequently associated with the city by the Bay as possible. There is of course nothing wrong with a band that exists in perpetual darkness, but the music that accompanies such brooding must be original enough to offset such a narrow and redundant scope. Litanies is not that album, and all too often the band fails to frame its inner turmoil in anything but recycled sounds.

Unless it's some sort of cosmically-sized coincidence, the band owes a large debt to both the Velvet Underground and Spacemen 3. The vocals and especially the arrangements - coated in layers of fuzz and distortion - are reminiscent of those two groups, most noticeably on "Needle and Thread," "Sitting In My Room" and "Pleasant Feeling." For some listeners it might be difficult to get past these similarities - and make those listeners cut their losses and just go straight to the source material - but there are a few promising inclusions here. The album works best in its moments of tension that exist in the vocal interplay of singers Cox and Baer; "After Death," "Nikki Don't," "Drudgery" and "I Detest" contrast leading vocals evoking pure misery with bright and bouncy background harmonies. The effect is unsettling and is easily the most memorable aspect of Litanies. The lyrics fit the tone set by the band's sound; the album is a well of gothic misery with seemingly no bottom, with references to insomnia brought on by being too high and too hot, the "desolate country" and the "malnourished sick" scattered among warnings not to fall in love and cheerless sentiments like "coldness cannot hide the spirit that flutters in fear." Oh happy day indeed.

But the album wallows in such thoughts so much that after a while they lose their impact, and coupled with the songs' heavily derivative sound, it makes for some pretty ponderous listening. Rare is the record that can last for very long in such abject despair; even a renowned master of melancholy like Will Oldham ended I See a Darkness with the hopeful "Raining in Darling," while artists as morose as Bill Callahan and the National at least sometimes couch their songs in sardonic humor.

Royal Baths could learn something from those artists about such nuances and shades of gray throughout Litanies. The band unarguably has impeccable influences and usually makes the most of them, but absent a truly genre-breaking style, clubbing the listener over the head with a barrage of gloom only gets a band so far.

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