[18 September 2009]
Or, The Whale—a melodically thick and twangy outfit out of San Francisco—released their critically lauded debut LP, Light Poles and Pines, two and a half years ago. Or, The Whale was not the first band to hop from genre to genre effortlessly, yet their album was just fresh enough that nobody really cared. Hundreds of gigs later (displaying a particular affinity for the West coast), Or, The Whale bring the inevitable lessons learned on the road to their self-titled second LP. It’s a remarkably mature effort which right away leads one to believe that they’ve avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. And for the most part, that’s a fair assessment.
Or, The Whale is particularly adept at showcasing melodies, which works both in their favor and to their detriment. “Datura”, an apparent ode to the hallucinogenic hold that ”Jimson weed” takes on lead singer Alex Robins, is comfortable in scope, with calming twang in the background. Yet Robins’ vocals show so little range that the incessant need to keep this track rolling along makes it come across as a half-assed AM radio country tune. But let’s be honest (after all, isn’t that what country music is all about?): It’s one of the few low points on the record.
“Count the Stars” romances the dimly lit, dusty shuffle of the last dance before closing time so well that it’s eerie. The twangy slide guitar that haunts the background of nearly every track on Or, The Whale is complemented by some awfully engaging percussion work. What works best about “Count the Stars” is how effortless the whole thing sounds. Robins aptly shares vocals with Julie Ann Thomasson, walking a fine line between alt-country and tear-in-your-beer rock. And just like during that last dance of the night, everything seems to fall into place. The production of Or, The Whale is crisp enough to clean up what could have been a sad-sack sloppy number, yet it’s hardly overbearing. It truly is the sound of falling in love. And it keeps getting better.
Or, The Whale does its best not to rely on proven country rock standards, especially on the Led Zeppelin-influenced waltz of “Giving Up Time”. Or, The Whale manage to smother a layer of creepiness on listeners, with acoustic guitars that drip with the kind of sweat and swagger that one would expect to find in the Mississippi Delta, as opposed to on the streets of San Francisco. I couldn’t help but think of the rich stomp of “Giving Up Time” as a modern prison song, which means Or, The Whale succeed where others in the country-rock genre have failed: they keep things very, very authentic.
While Or, The Whale cross a variety of genres, their depth is never more present than on “Shasta”, as Lindsay Garfield’s precious vocals don’t cross genres as much as they cross coasts. “Shasta” brings to life the pain of saying goodbye, while delivering a heavy, gospel-esque East Coast vibe. Lyrically, it keeps in line with Or, The Whale’s stunning delivery. “But whiskey cures the damndest of it,” Garfield sings, proving that Or, The Whale’s honesty is its best feature. “Shasta” might prove how hard goodbyes really are. But with the loose and comfortable precision in which this record is delivered, here’s hoping Or, The Whale don’t say goodbye anytime soon.