Houseboat (11.09, Western Vinyl)
For: Here We Go Magic, Years, Rachel's
Byline: A textured and powerfully moving record that skillfully balances the band's bifurcated pop and ambient sensibilities. Originally published on www.inyourspeakers.com. Used by permission from In Your Speakers, LLC.
In indie rock nomenclature, “Whale” has become the new “Wolf”, which had become the new “Black”, which in turn had become the new “Death”. In 2009 we have already seen releases by Freelance Whales, Or, the Whale, Noah and the Whale, Forget the Whale, and, lest we forget, The Devil Whale and White Whale. It looks like we have another onomastic epidemic on our hands, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the seventies, when everyone was naming their bands after geographical locations. With that said, you’d have to expect that at least one of these groups can live up to their favorite mammals’ mysterious, slow drift through the vast expanse of the oceans. If there is one “Whale” group that can do this it is Sleep Whale with their 2009 release, Houseboat.
FACT: Whales don’t ever really sleep. Because they are conscious breathers (they can’t take breaths while unconscious, unlike most other mammals) they can’t ever snooze like we can. The brains of whales are thought to compensate for this by shutting down one hemisphere at a time to get the rest they need piecemeal, so part of the day a whale is swimming through a hazy, half-awake/half-asleep existence. This is an apt metaphor for the sound Sleep Whale are going for. It is beautiful when a band’s name and the imagery evoked by it coincide as if by some benevolent cosmic force.
Hailing from Denton, TX, the collective known as Sleep Whale craft beautifully arranged songs from a rotating ensemble of acoustic guitars, violins, cellos, occasional woodwinds, a plethora of other assorted instruments, and sampled electronic programming. Of the thirteen gorgeous tracks on Houseboat, only a conservative handful feature vocals, and when they are present they are kept low in the mix, sounding like far-off whale song. The songs are structured around a few repeated instrumental lines, letting the occasional players of the extended Sleep Whale family fill in the cracks with delicious flourishes. A move that is positively irresistible is the occasional use of electronically manipulated vocal sampling, à la The Kallikak Family, featured extensively on “Light Tunnel”. The keyed up female vocal sample that follows the lilting violin line and mournful martial drumming is a place I want to live my life in.
The first single off of Houseboat, “Cotton Curls”, is a fairly good indicator of where this band could go if they didn’t let their ambient and chamber pop leanings overwhelm their penchant for middle-of-the-road indie rock songs. Fortunately for us, they lean much more heavily towards the former. A similar band in the ambient/pop balancing act that has put out an amazing and criminally overlooked album is Sleep Whales’ Western Vinyl labelmates Here We Go Magic. The formula that makes these bands so viable in both spheres is not the obligatory pop song/ambient song album structure but the actual tension going on beneath the surface of each song. Each pop song sounds like it was built from the ground up, piling an indie rock verse/chorus song structure atop a swirling, nebulous cloud of intricate instrumentation and electronic manipulation. The ambient songs are held together by a compositional fidelity to deliberate pacing and mood, with each song having a clear arc and peak.
Perhaps there is no better evidence of structuring than the album’s most gorgeous instrumental track, “Roof Sailing” (an apt name for houseboat living), a simple looped acoustic guitar line with a bowed violin laid over the top and processed harmonica or harmonium, with some neat sounding synth washes and hiccuping electronics. These increase on a linear scale in both intensity and frequency until they reach a boiling point that marks the introduction of an underwater drum kit pounded with the ferocity of a killer whale. It has occurred to me while listening to Houseboat just how similar this album sounds to another evocative masterpiece, Appleseed Cast’s Low Level Owl. Both records are recorded similarly, with atmospherics far outweighing innate pop sensibilities. The shoo-in example for this comparison is “Still Drumming”, with its Sung Tongs era atonal acoustic guitars and underwater vocals, and climatic revelry of drums.
These nomenclature trends come in cycles, as we have already seen with “Crystal” and “Antlers” running their courses (culminating, and dying, in the obvious move of combining the two), but we will forever have The Antlers and Crystal Castles as postmarks on the twisting road of band naming. Sleep Whale will forever be the crème de la crème of the “Whales”. That is, until my band, Death Whale destroys them all.