February is a short month that packs a punch. Many anticipated albums have yet to be released and of course there is Valentine’s Day. On Valentine’s Day Shearwater released Animal Joy while Band of Skulls released Sweet Sour. Are these albums something to share with your loved one (or listen to alone) or something to avoid? Find out after the jump.
There is something anomalous to this group, as its moody atmospherics and sweeping narratives within the lyrics set them in a class apart; however, the music and performances are so tightly under control, it sets them apart from most post-punk artists. There is nothing throughout Animal Joy that suggests something wasnât supposed to happen and became a happy accident. Instead, the music here is exactly constructed that recalls the complex pop-rock typical of the 80âs. Peter Gabriel is probably the most obvious influence here, especially in lead singer Johnathan Meibergâs chamber-deep voice that still stretches in falsetto. And if that doesnât immediately recall that era of the former Genesis front man, songs and titles like âOpen Your Houses,â will.
But as impressively structured the tunes are, it speaks to how to perform passionately. Everything here is dense, and at times unexpected. âDread Sovereignâ the third track, for example, features overdriven guitars playing at a slow, burning pace that simmers quietly until the mighty, heavy chorus. Or consider the lone up-tempo track, âImmaculate,â which speeds along just below in the same way that driving just below the 55-mph speed limit is going too fast. It takes nearly forever for Animal Joy to leave an impression beyond its own moodiness, a kind of melancholia that is soulful, but isolated from really connecting. Perhaps because the lyrics and subject matter are so earthy and universal in nature, it doesnât make an effort to really draw you in and surprise you.
Most of the songs take on an organic quality that recalls New Age music, such as the six- minute âInsolence.â It begins with twinkling, echoing strings in front of Thor Harrisâ booming night-time march beat that echoes before the chorus which springs to life like a Houses of the Holy-era Zeppelin track (think if that entire album were simply seven different variations of âThe Rain Songâ and “No Quarter,” and you have the right idea). The difference is, however, it does not stay with this power, and the song fades out in a way that seems counter-intuitive for anyone familiar with quality theatrical rock. Everything here is done with such delicate touch (consider how Meiberg finishes any line in any verse, where the last word falls off his lips like heâs blowing a butterfly off of his finger), and intention to be so, that makes it fantastic introspective background listening, but it goes no further than being âmood music.â
Shearwater is the sort of band that offers fans-only kind of joys that make it hard to imagine many people laud their records as modern classics. To be sure, theyâre all good, and with some terrific atmospheric textures that give tension and release. What they strive for is artistically satisfying, and in that regard, Animal Joy is a very satisfying listen. But so are some Renaissance Fair tribute bands, and not everybody likes the sound of lyres.
Much like Dr. Dogâs Be the Void (also released recently), Band of Skullâs second album illustrates a young bandâs knowledge and debt to the school of classic rock. However, where Dr. Dog will mix and match influences into interesting combinations heretofore never considered, Band of Skulls puts on an impressive display of muscular guitar rock that is part Southern Rock (minus the Country aspects), mixed with the dynamics of the Pixies.
Yet, in such a mix, many attempts at catchy riffs seem lost in the density of the attack, and instead, the band relies on interesting, wistful vocal melodies. âThe Devil Takes Care of His Ownâ (perhaps the most memorable of the big, sludgy riffs on the album) indulges in this kind of vocal smoothness, as bassist Emma Richardson supports Russell Marsdenâs nasal yelp and gives the vocal part a kind of jerky lilt that contrasts to the heavy metal thunder of the chorus. Paired with the quieter psych-folk tune âLay My Head Downâ after, it proves them to be one of the more unusual, but fine, harmonic duos in rock, but it also shows the bandâs knack for moody, atmospheric songs.
“Lay My Head Down” is obvious from the gorgeous wall of breathing electronic organ and the floating jangling guitar intro. Though the chorus is a better display of their combined vocal talents than the verses, the songâs final result is a beautiful stand-out track. And not just because it is surrounded by so much hard rocking chaos either; the songâs own middle section features a gnarly wall of dark bass before relenting to a gentle, reactionary guitar solo.
Fans of The Dead Weather and The Kills will find a lot to love here, as Sweet Sour is chock full of dark blues-rock that teases the devil to come hither to the bandâs devices. The title track sounds like something of a Horehound rarity, in fact, thanks to the slow stomping rhythm, and the isolated vocals by the end of the chorus. Or the chorus of âLies,â with that blues-rock go-to line, âLies are the truths you tell yourselfâ also speaks to the bandâs recognition of their place among their peers.
Still, there are moments of sweetness, like âBruisesâ which plays like some lost 90âs gem, and shows the bandâs mastery of the aforementioned contrast between wistful and dense. But Band of Skulls does not play it down the middle, but playing both at once, and mixing it to be as loud as they can. Yet, Sweet Sour is not a balanced album itself, as its second half is a bit on the softer side, though not with a few stabs at the dark realities of relationships â the chorus to âHometown,â for example: âItâs just kids having / more kids out of the fear / of being alone.â And the Richardson and Marsden perfecting their vocal harmony to sing âBut I guess youâll do,â like a couple truly in love.
Call it the band refocusing their energies, to get the themes theyâre playing with to create a more diverse set of lists, and it works out in their favor. By the end of the albumâs quiet closer, âClose to Nowhere,â you feel like youâve completed a story in a new and different place, but still left with a little bit more to be desired. The album itself is fascinating, and it certainly has its share of great tracks, but if only I could remember a little bit more about where the journey starts.