Thursday, March 03, 2011

Brown Recluse: Evening Tapestry

Brown Recluse
Evening Tapestry
Rating: 3.7/5.0
Label: Slumberland Records

It took Brown Recluse about five years since their formation to release their first full length - practically a lifetime in these days of home studios and computer programs that can turn almost any doof into a poor man's Steve Albini. A pair of brief-but-promising EPs, Black Sunday and The Soft Skin, hinted at what the Philadelphia-based band was capable of, generating a bit of local buzz while, between those releases, the group eventually expanded from the duo of Timothy Meskers and Mark Saddlemire to include several more members. Whether it's categorized as indie-pop, chamber-pop, dream-pop, psych-pop or whatever-pop, the group's debut effort, Evening Tapestry, is a wonderfully crafted, instrumentally layered album that suggests its long gestation period was well worth it.

Perhaps the record's most noticeable trait is that it doesn't exhibit any of the flaws sometimes associated with debut albums; there are no painfully juvenile lyrics, ignoble musical fuckups or streams of influence-imitating garbage. The care that went into making these songs sound a certain way is evident. Keyboards, Farfisa organ and trumpet are used liberally throughout; on opening track "Hobble To Your Tomb," they're set to a crawl and used to shape the song's fatalistic overtones, then sped up to a jaunty bounce on "Impressions of a City Morning" and "Golden Sun." Meskers' vocals practically float above the songs' arrangements, his voice frequently taking on a hazy, dreamlike quality, especially on "Statue Garden," "Wooden Fingers" and "At Last." Though Evening Tapestry's overarching style isn't exactly without precedent - shades of Stuart Murdoch sometimes creep into Meskers' delivery, and the way the instruments blend together are reminiscent of many things Elephant 6, especially the Olivia Tremor Control - the songs are quirky and catchy enough for that to be forgiven.

Though the album's overall vibe is primarily airy and breezy, its lyrics are quite the opposite. Tucked within these 11 pop songs are references to physical decay, "mangled flesh," bruises and bleeding - that's just the first track - as well as an arm cut on a fencepost and the resulting smears of blood. In other songs, Meskers' vocals focus heavily on weather systems and local geography, evoking an environment of city lights, taxies, summer rain and wind, crumbling statues and monuments, buses and nighttime descending on a hometown. It's a nice trick the way the singer's vocals contrast with the arrangements; indeed, this effect is so subtle that listeners might not realize they're hearing a pretty nihilistic song about being marched to a tomb until it's already lodged itself in the brain.

Evening Tapestry occasionally falters when its sound becomes too uniform - a nagging sense of redundancy lingers on both "Summer Showers" and "Paisley Tears" - but mostly it's a tight, concise album full of clever musical and lyrical ideas that are usually executed quite well without any indie pretensions or indulgences. The band took their time in releasing it, and for the better, but here's hoping the next full length comes along sooner than 2016.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Rural Alberta Advantage: Departing

The Rural Alberta Advantage
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Saddle Creek Records

Departing will sound immediately familiar to anyone who's heard Hometowns, the 2009 wounded-hearts-and-small-towns album from Canadian indie-folk trio the Rural Alberta Advantage. Lead singer and primary lyricist Nils Edenloff, offering the type of assessment that will shape how listeners and critics view the album for years, has described Departing as Hometowns' companion piece. He's not kidding, as even upon first listen the similarities are obvious, both in how the album sounds - acoustically-minded but occasionally explosive - and more so in the imagery that links the album to its predecessor: weather, ghosts, bones, Great White North geography, heartbreaks and promises of fidelity can be found throughout the record.

For listeners it's a simple equation: those who got hooked on the band via Hometowns will likely get hooked a little more with Departing, while dissenters - maybe those still wondering just where the bass is or who find Edenloff's nasal vocals too abrasive - probably won't be impressed. It's this latter group's loss, though, as throughout the album the RAA mostly succeed by following this tightly-honed blueprint. The band can be contemplative and fatalistic: ; on album opener "Two Lovers," acoustic guitar and a graceful melody accentuate the track's dark, death-obsessed exterior. It's a love song, of sorts, as Edenloff says, "And you will die and become a ghost/ And haunt me until my pulse also slows." Album closer "Good Night" is likewise restrained, the dual vocals of Edenloff and Amy Cole complementing the song's panoramic landscape and gentle percussion; it also has all the markings of a concert closer, if only the hipster indie crowd in the back by the bar just wouldn't talk so loud. As they did on Hometowns with "Luciana" and "The Dethbridge in Lethbridge," the RAA mix in several rock songs amidst all the folksy balladry; "Muscle Relaxants," "Stamp" and "Tornado '87" add muscle and volume to the album without making it any less cohesive.

It's not accurate to dismiss the album as a complete retread of Hometowns, however, as it does sporadically reveal a subtle evolution in the band's sound. Paul Banwatt's drumming is less up-front in the mix - though it's front-and-center on "Under the Knife" - an approach that makes the songs' instrumentation sound more balanced, if slightly less unique, on "The Breakup" and "Barnes' Yard." Edenloff's vocals are generally more refined and polished but still remain expressive and unconventional; as a singer he knows how to bend and phrase his words to wring out the emotions, particularly on "North Star" and "Coldest Days."

Departing's main drawback is that it's thematically repetitive: the album's first image is that of two lovers in an embrace - a recurring motif that was all over Hometowns and appears on at least four other songs this time around - while most of the album is also cluttered with references to beating hearts (not of the gothic variety) and all-conquering, capital-L Love. True, some artists have made careers out of constantly mining this topic, and no one seemed to mind when Bethany Cosentino wrote the same song 12 times on Crazy for You, but sometimes Edenloff's lyrics feel too narrow, too insular in their scope. Still, the album is highly listenable and as a continuation of Hometowns is usually spot on. The RAA don't break new musical ground on Departing, but it's a fine release from a band whose potential for crafting a masterpiece, and soon, is already apparent.

by Eric Dennis