The Plural of the Choir

Deep Elm

learly, there’s too much pop in the air. Or expectant mood of springtime. Whatever it is, the rockist cast of Settlefish’s new album initially turned me off. I’m glad I returned to it, as it’s got some real merits. The dynamic aspects are impressive; near-ambient intros bring to mind Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth without aping them. Waltz times, muscular guitar bridges and deep-end bass recall Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, perhaps unconsciously, as they’re not as tightly composed, nor as pop-savvy.

A nifty trick; the guys seem to have subsumed the last few years worth of relevant listening. Their approach is a fair blend of original and derivative, but it sounds in no way like a ‘translation’ of recent noteworthies. Brian Deck has added some smoothness, but that’s no complaint. I’ve little patience for people who declaim production skill as detraction from “the music.” At times, though, I wish the compositions were a bit more organic. The first track, “Kissing is Chaos,” goes through at least four segments, depending on how you count. In other instances, those movements are separated into tracks that don’t always stand on their own. Perhaps there are significant reasons for the seemingly arbitrary divisions.

On the upside, there’s variety of track length and intensity. The first and last tracks (and most notable) are a bit over six minutes apiece. In less than forty minutes total, only one other of fifteen tracks breaks 3:00. Again, though, they flow together in a way that really suggests interdependence. The tendency is toward barking vocals with semi-prog backing, but the ‘lude tracks vary it up with gently ebbing guitars. Plopped amidst lengthy washes, there are even a few songs that seem fairly independent.

“The Barnacle Beach” is a nice, self-contained tug-of-war, one of the Mousiest tracks on the album. It’s well constructed, with a lovely rhythm section of bass-tom and shaker backing a homely chant of “hopscotch round the yard” with another vocal line indecipherably buried underneath. Unforgivable, maybe, if it weren’t a childhood recollection.

“It Was Bliss!” may be the standout, here. It fair on gallops, and the harsh vocals approach harmony more closely than any of the other yelps (as opposed to the near-whispers). It also locks into a cohesive structure: bangity-bang-a-bang intro, brief thudding verse, quick bridge, retightened intro, chorus, thudding verse two, breakdown with the title gently repeated four times, and an insta-outro. If they can come up with an album that has this much focus on half the tracks to balance their love of meander, they’ll go far.

“To the North” settles into canter, with a supple polyrhythm that’s the ‘nicest’ sounding track on the album, rolling along into a sudden bassline that would be disruptive if it lacked the twinkling, minimalist guitar chimes. They build to an abruptly ending chord attack that segues into “Sparrow You Will Fly”, making for one of the better transitions on the album, and one of the moments closest to experimentation.

After this strong mid-section, the album fragments too much for my taste, though many may enjoy the flurry of tempos and intensities. Whether “Girl Understanding Song” is tongue-in-cheek or not, it doesn’t work for me, other than the conceptual conceit of such a wish only lasting for 43 seconds.

The final cut, though, is the competition for best track. “We Please the Night, Drama” gently tugs the listener through various movements, without the jolts so common to the album. There are only a few parts, and they repeat in overlapping round rather than flipping back and forth. The whispery vocals are made stronger, the shouts are muted. By the time it’s attained maximum density, it’s in better-than-Mogwai-lately territory, and seems to fly by in four minutes, not six and a half. Here’s to this level of craftsmanship on try three—if Settlefish achieve that, they may make it into my frequent revisit stack.

Reviewed by: Dan Miron
Reviewed on: 2005-04-08
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