[10 March 2006]
If Devics’ first three full-length albums are inconsistent and peppered with wonderful moments, and their fourth, The Stars at St Andrea, is consistent but too serene, like a boat trip across a flat lake on a warm day, then Push the Heart is a summing-up of everything they’ve done so far, and a suggestion of what might come in the future. It has the cohesive flow of Stars at St Andrea, but a little of the old discord has returned to make things more interesting.
For example? There’s a maritime accordion creak in the second song, “Secret Message to You, which suggests their third album, My Beautiful Sinking Ship, but where My Beautiful Sinking Ship was full of icy instruments that poked up jaggedly, a piano that clanged and rocked up and down, and Sara Lov’s aching cabaret voice, “Secret Message to You” tames the creak and brings it into line with a much smoother piano and a typewriter-tapping noise that sounds like subdued morse code. The ache is still there and yet Lov’s voice is breathy now, rather than fierce. She doesn’t yelp on Push the Heart, as she did in their self-released first album, Buxom, but her voice comes close to harshness on “Just One Breath”, which is a fine thing, because it proves that she’s still willing to take risks. She’s willing to sound a little less than perfect.
The tension in the music has grown subtler. They’ve moved closer to the sound of those bands that flood their albums with one long enveloping hazy atmosphere. The Cocteau Twins helped to popularise that haze, and I wonder if it’s significant that Devics’ most ‘Twins-like album, Stars at St Andrea, was made after they had signed to Bella Union, the UK label owned by ex-Cocteau-Twin Simon Raymonde. Their press material argues that the band changed their focus naturally, after a move from California to Europe left them peacefully lodged in a rented Italian farmhouse south of Bologna. They developed a reputation in Europe, and then, in 2004, moved back to the U.S., where Push the Heart was completed.
Their time in Italy seems to have made them mellower, and possibly happier. There’s less direct anger in their songs than there used to be although you still can’t say that the lyrics are bundles of bouncing joy. “It’s so hard to love when you know how it goes,” Lov sings slowly on “Come Up, accompanied by a slow piano and a slower buzz.
At least one reviewer has complained that her voice dominates Devics at the expense of her bandmate Dustin O’Halloran, who plays most of the instruments, but, honestly, I don’t think that it can be helped. She has a tone like a powerful whisper, a sweet burr with a push behind it and a pearly edge like a curled lip. It’s one of those voices that naturally calls attention to itself. O’Halloran sings huskily on “Song for a Sleeping Girl” and the momentum of the album ebbs; Lov takes over on the next song and the momentum rises again. O’Halloran is at his best when he’s making elegant indie noises with his piano and layering the album with spooky, sweet mournfulness, as he does, beautifully, on “Lie to Me”.
Push the Heart sounds like a transition. The band proved that they could be jangly and fierce, and then they proved that they could make an album that hung together, and with Push they’re hinting that they can do both. I like this album. But I’m more excited when I try to imagine the next one.