alifax's Wintersleep start their second self-titled album with a brief blast called “Lipstick.” The vocals, a bray half-way between My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Canadian baritone Hayden, bully the track forward over a steady guitar/drum bluster. I admit I'm a sucker for that kind of combination, a kind of wailed momentum above churning stasis, and they do it well. “Jaws Of Life,” the second track, mostly sticks to the same formula, and it works surprisingly well.
There is sometimes a point, the first time you listen to an album, where you think you know how things are going to play out, but in a positive way. Not that the music is lacking imagination, but that you've got a grip on the band's sound and you're enjoying it. I could have gladly listened to Wintersleep grind out small nuggets of noisy bluster for forty minutes or so, and the fact that the rest of the album wrong footed me so badly indicates that maybe I, at least, am ready as a listener for a bit more simplicity in (indie) rock; for bands who find one thing they're good at, and then for an album at least just develop that instead of trying to be the new art rock auteurs. I try to not hold the fact that Wintersleep wound up not being what I wanted against them; what I can't help but note, however, is that nothing else the band tries is as satisfying as the sound of those first couple of songs.
Single “Danse Macabre” follows along the same lines (albeit not as nicely compacted as “Lipstick” and “Jaws Of Life”), but first you get a couple of quasi-ballads (although “Insomnia” is distinguished by a nicely subtle use of backing choral vocals) and the self-consciously lengthy “Nerves Normal, Breath Normal” which demonstrates unnecessarily that the guitarists in the band can carry their own weight. Of course, they'd already proved that, but the lengthy break to riff for a while is awfully close to mandatory these days.
There's some good stuff to be found nearer the end of the album; “Migration” uses a massed “la la la” chorus to good effect, and “A Long Flight” indicates that Wintersleep can indeed summon up that kind of grandiose, sweeping sentiment that I get the feeling the band feels as if they have to reach for. Rock is too laden with implications of Art and Significance for most bands to avoid deliberately trying to evoke those notions, whereas of course much of that resonance was created unconsciously. I don't know the guys who make up Wintersleep, and of course it's insulting to assume that I know which bits here came more naturally for them (if indeed parts of it were more natural than others). But it feels from this end as if a song like “A Long Flight” is more of a stretch than “Lipstick.”
Don't get me wrong: “A Long Flight” works—it's a good song, and on the whole Wintersleep is a decent album. But it's hard not to feel as if the band's ambition isn't actually working against them. Every album these days seems to strive to be the Soundtrack to Our Lives, Today and they all seem to be taking a similar tack in how they attempt to reach us. The truth of course is that our lives usually wind up soundtracked by any old thing, for idiosyncratic reasons, and for me personally Wintersleep would have had a much better shot if they hadn't tried so hard.