Fires In Distant Buildings
he timing of Gravenhurst’s two releases last year—the Warp reissue of Flashlight Sessions and the Black Holes in the Sand EP—was simultaneously beneficial and damning. Songwriter Nick Talbot’s brand of creepy acoustic rock might not have been as enthusiastically sought out were it not for last year’s underground folk boom, but at the same time, it necessitated that he be compared to artists like Devendra Banhart, who received more acclaim and essentially overshadowed him.
So with Fires In Distant Buildings, Talbot completely revamped his sound. The quieter moments are still present, but as a whole Gravenhurst has veered from a fairly straightforward, lyrically driven project to one that’s suddenly released one of the most ambitious albums of the year.
“Cities Beneath the Sea” subtly hints at this major change. It begins with Talbot strumming his acoustic guitar and singing haunting lyrics, just as most of his old material would. But at around the two-minute mark, a piercing organ enters that matches the foreboding nature of Talbot’s words. When Fires’ songs begin silently, they rarely end that way, and moments like this are what were missing from Gravenhurst’s earlier works.
Almost everything else is drastically different and new—much closer to Slint than Belle and Sebastian. Fires isn’t a collection of tight folk songs, but a moving set of compositions that often check in at over seven minutes, but never feel lengthy because of their nebulous structures. “Velvet Cell” locks into a driving groove for three minutes and then abruptly abandons it in favor of sharp riffs and crashing cymbals. On a later reprise track, the same groove returns and cruises onward for another four-and-a-half minutes.
(A brief aside: Gravenhurst should be commended for throwing in a reprise of what was a strong track to begin with, and it’s surprising that bands don’t do this more often. Works of short fiction almost always succeed when they help the reader along by returning them to an established, familiar setting, and there’s no reason why this principle wouldn’t apply just as well for albums. Just look at Sgt. Pepper’s for example, or, even more blatantly, The Harder They Come.)
It’s appropriate that Fires ends with a transformation of the Kinks’ “See My Friends.” The way Talbot takes a droning/jangling pop song and reframes it as a post-rock downer/hyperactive psyche-tinged freak-out fittingly represents the changes he made with his own music. If Gravenhurst were previously overlooked for its relatively bland sound, it’s now a project worth following for its unpredictability. Fires In Distant Buildings might not blow the masses away, but that’s a far, far cry from lulling them to sleep.
Reviewed by: Ross McGowan
Reviewed on: 2005-10-28