The Wrecker’s Lantern
he sea, as every sailor knows, is a cruel mistress—but has also been, throughout the centuries, a powerful creative force. It is present in whaling tales, rhymes of ancient mariners, and now comes sloshing out of your stereos courtesy of The Wrecker’s Lantern, the debut album from Nottingham-based quintet Saint Joan. The landlocked East Midlands gun capital may not be the obvious origin of five wistful oceanographers, but irrelevant of its physical presence, the sea permeates every inch of this album.
“Moths and Dragonflies” counts us in with gentle acoustica lapping like waves over the gunwales and lush, restrained strings ushering us out of port while singer Ellen McGee breathes so enchantingly it takes the full three minutes to realize this is a dark tale of a sailor’s suicide. It’s easy to get lost in Ellen’s voice; backed with those swirling, woozy violins, it acts like siren song. You coast along on its delicious tone, lost in the shimmer of sound, so that you barely notice when it drags you over the sharp, buried rocks of her lyrics. Take for example, on “Singing Bowl,” the Richard III allusion to “those are pearls that were his eyes.” It’s a horrified, submerged iceberg of a phrase, and she lets it dribble from her mouth like honeydew. If she told you to jump out of a window, you probably would.
Her crew are just as persuasive. The backing they provide is deep, vivid, and full of strange, antique, exotic colors. Saint Joan will probably be referred to as indie-rock by every lazy critic under the sun, myself included—but as with all truly remarkable bands, it’s a rope to cling to when you have no idea what to do with them. There’s a strong folk bent to this music, albeit of the hypnotic, get-stoned-and-hijack-the-Cutty-Sark kind. I would call them ocean pop, a natural complement to the geographic landscape rock niche carved out by British Sea Power, but visions of the sailor-suited classic camp purveyed by Turbonegro spring to mind. Plus, I don’t want to sound like a prick.
So sail on with me while I squeeze every last drop of comparison out of my weak extended metaphor, as we travel past the dark undertows of “The Four Last Things.” Pay close attention to “Fire at Sea,” with its torpid opening strangely reminiscent of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” if Ian Curtis liked to dress up as Nelson. Rumblings of shuddering bass, doomed drums, and a sinister chug of guitar underpin the high-range crooning of McGee, aided and abetted by Krisztina Hidasi’s sublime violin.
But this is just a prelude to the storm. At eight minutes and nineteen seconds, “December” rivals the frenetic polka deathtrip of the Decemberists’ “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” in terms of “length of song that can be possibly written about sailors.” Ellen speaks her soft, resigned, accented vocals over an inexorable drumbeat and expansive violin. It’s somewhere between Jarvis Cocker and his less interesting, more glamorous protégé Kate Jackson’s, but with lip gloss and cigarettes replaced with deep, treacherous water and a romantic, sepia-tinted, inescapable drift towards death. The slow build is worth every second, and when the tempest hits the listener is left gasping like a fish on the shore.
Reviewed by: Richard O’Brien
Reviewed on: 2007-07-23