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All Tiny Creatures

Harbors

(Hometapes; US: 29 Mar 2011; UK: import)

Despite its title, Harbors is an album that sounds land locked. Not in a constricting way at all, but these songs seem to stretch out and bask in the sun—rather than following the stars—drying and hardening into bright swaths of sound. The movement of the album also takes on the path of the sun over the course of a day, from the bright, early-morning burst of the first tracks, to the midday haze of the middle, to the moody dusk that begins to set in as the album closes.


That kind of unity of sound, and convincing movement, arises out of the meticulous approach Thomas Wincek and his bandmates take with these songs. The combination of looped sounds and natural progressions—run through synths, guitars, and drums—lays down a thick, shimmering sonic coat on each of these songs. If All Tiny Creatures does one thing pretty well here (and they do more than one) it’s that this is a pop sound too slippery to pin down. The synths and loops might make you think electro-pop, the winding guitars power-pop or even psych-rock, but no one signifier covers all their sonic ground.


The outstanding opener “Holography” lets us in on the insistent sound of the record, but also introduces a subtle tension that rides over the entirety of Harbors. The Krautrock-steady beat drives ahead as guitars and keys ride light riffs over the top, but the interplay of vocals and instruments becomes the most compelling piece. The song thickens on deep vocal harmonies, Beach-Boys-bright but too haunting to be derivative, which eventually yield to wailing knots of guitar. It’s a shift you might not notice until a minute or so after it happened, but that deep-down shift is vital to the song’s impressive inertia.


“An Iris” has a similar tension. It no surprise this collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon works so well, since Wincek worked with him on Volcano Choir, and Vernon’s vocals are unsurprisingly resonant and brilliant. The songs works, though, because Vernon is constantly trading spaces with the soft bed of keys and quick-fire guitar riffs for controlling share of the song’s atmosphere. It’s not a battle so much as a conversation between player and instrument that runs through Harbor. Even when the vocals take on recognizable lyrics, as on the clanging “Cargo Maps”, they are still another shaped sound, another layer in the song rather than a conveyor of messages.


This use of words—vocals are new to the All Tiny Creatures landscape here—brings another set of opposing forces to the surface of the record, one between sharpness and obscurity. The album becomes increasingly hazy as it goes, blurring at the edges in the processed voices on “Glass Bubbles” or the ghostly keening of “Triangle Frog”, but the specific elements are sharp, carefully crafted and distinct. The entire album rides on a clearly defined repetition, so that each song is expansive and yet still tight from moment to moment. This skill is easy to spot in the album’s first half, but it’s in the moodier second half that their ability to maintain clarity while expanding outward becomes their unique virtue.


Take “Reservoirs”, a song of buzzing synths and shapeless vocals. It should drift off into the ether; it should be a meditative break from the steady chug of the rest of the record. Instead, every new element builds not on those airy pieces, but on the spare, handclap-like percussion in the background. Wincek and company know when to build off a foundation, and when to make the foundation itself bigger, and when they do that these songs become a little fuller, and trickier to unravel, than they might have first seemed.


So, yes, the musicianship and composition of Harbors is confidently built and impressive. As a whole, it’s a musical work that will draw you in and keep you listening all the way through. Its repetition, and carefully set layers, makes for a resonant sound, but it also avoids many standout moments. So while the record will jab you over and over with small surprises, there’s never quite that knockout punch. That one caveat aside, Harbors is an intricate and catchy set of songs, one that truly earns the name “album” with its cohesion and skillful movement. Rarely does music this meticulous also sound so effortless and, more importantly, so damned joyful.

Rating:

Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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