We are lucky and we know it
When we last left Vancouver’s Said The Whale the band was gearing up to the release of new full-length Little Mountain, a jam-packed 15-song affair that promised more of the band’s trademark blending of frisky guitar pop. That’s mostly what we got. Mostly.
Truth be told, I’ve struggled with this review for more than three months, mostly because I want to get the tone right. So here goes: There’s nothing I dislike about Little Mountain but I’m afraid it isn’t the Said The Whale album that I’d hoped for.
To backpedal: I’ve really enjoyed Said The Whale’s past records, for reasons I’ve outlined before. The Cliff’s Notes for the link-shy: I love their songs when they’re shot through with boundless energy and gobs of melody. The up-tempo, frantic rockers are uniformly flawless and undeniably enjoyable; nobody writes nuanced, joyful rays of sunshine like this band. When their drummer is flailing and the bass playfully dances in and out of the mix there is really nothing better. Take the flurry of scale notes at the top and bottom of stand-out track “Loveless,” maybe my favourite on this record; it’s a sudden little melodic surprise that’s gone before it even registers but still manages to make an impression. Those small flourishes of detail are evidence of the raw talent group has in spades, something no one can deny.
That talent is likely also what drives the band to move beyond that singularity, to let all aspects of rock music have a place in their sound. While I applaud their ability and their diversity — make no mistake, there isn’t a badly-conceived or badly-executed song in the bunch — it’s the wide scope that takes me out of the moment one too many times on Little Mountain.
Opener “We Are 1980″ is a great middle-point and a terrific start to the record. It starts a bit low-key but opens up into a full fledged sing-along that could, frankly, work better at the close of a record than the start. Still, it’s anthemic qualities could really start a rising action if it were to transition into a song like “Loveless” or “Heavy Ceiling.”
But instead “Big Sky MT” comes second. A lovely song in its own right, but it flows along at a near-glacial pace and kills any momentum “1980″ might have spurred. The folksy tune is an example of one of the things this band does best, namely bringing the inspiration its songwriters derive from the natural surroundings of the world to the listener through rootsy instrumentation, melody, and picturesque lyrical descriptions of a pastoral environment that the indie types who likely make up the group’s audience may not appreciate in the same manner. There is literally nothing wrong with this song, no downside I can point to to say I don’t enjoy it; it’s the mere location it’s presented in that frustrates me.
I should probably stress that the songs here are uniformly GOOD songs; even the more laconic folk numbers like “Big Wave Goodbye” take Said The Whale in new directions that are truly interesting. That track’s vocal harmonies are dense and complete and the melodically chaotic brass in the second half of the song is a new trick that commands attention. “Lucky” is also a highlight, as its use of sassy handclaps and it’s super-posi lyrics make it the bright-side jam of 2012.
To an extent the issue of sequencing is really the primary trouble spot for me. For every groovy track like “The Reason,” with it’s vintage pop piano and slinky bass, there’s a “Hurricane Ada,” a number that asks for more patience than I seem to be willing to give it. The middle third of the album seems like my ideal version of Said The Whale after too much cough syrup: sloth-like tempos, drawn-out arrangements, and wide-open, dreamy sounds. On their own they stand up just fine, but back-to back-to back it kind of makes me sleepy.
As a journalist, my boss often tells me that you have to write to hold people’s attention. If you give them a second to shift their attention they most often will, leaving whatever you had to say, as important as it may be, inert and unheard. It may be an entirely personal thing, but I find my attention drifting away from Little Mountain too often for it to feel like a success. Maybe I want too badly to pigeonhole them, to keep them recording songs like “Heavy Ceiling,” “Loveless,” and “Out On The Shield,” but that isn’t fair to a group of artists that are capable of so much more than that. I think that makes Little Mountain a record that you should listen to and decide for yourself.
You can also see some really terrific videos the band produced by clicking here. As part of the promotional effort for Little Mountain they had a video made for each and every song!
There are also a handful of tour dates still on the horizon as well.
Jun 23, Ottawa — Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival
Jun 24, St. Catharines — S.C.E.N.E. Music Festival
Jul 06, Banff — The Banff Centre
Jul 07, Golden — Rockwater
Jul 08, Kelowna — Keloha Festival
Jul 14, Toronto — Edgefest 2012
Jul 21, Yellowknife — Folk On The Rocks Festival
Jul 22, Yellowknife — Folk On The Rocks Festival
Aug 19, Toronto — Echo Beach