Speck Mountain’s last album, 2009’s Some Sweet Relief, was one of my picks for 2009 album of the year. The obvious antecedents are bands like Cowboy Junkies and, especially, Mazzy Star: in fact the lead tune from that album, “Shame on the Soul”, could have been a lost Mazzy track (and a good one at that). With sleepy tempos, languid vocals from Marie-Claire Balabanian and chiming guitar courtesy of Karl Briederick, the Chicago-based outfit is a band that mines a well-ploughed furrow, but their tight musical chops ensure that the proceedings never feel rote.
The good news is that the band’s latest full-length, Badwater, retains much of what was likable about their previous efforts, while (slightly) expanding the sonic palette into new and compelling territory. In fact, the only serious caveat here is the length of the album, whose nine songs clock in at a somewhat paltry 38 minutes. That aside, there is much to get lost in, and Balabanian’s voice is as evocative as ever.
That voice is really the defining component of the band, although Briederick’s fretwork and liquid basslines do yeoman service as well. Opening track “Caught Up” brings the vocals front and center above chiming guitars, reassuring listeners that the band is staying true to its vision. Any number of subsequent tracks follow suit, tweaking the template only minimally while relying on basic components like a hummable melody, understated percussion, and moody, noodling bass. Songs like “Flares”, “Slow So Long”, and “Young Eyes” could all be straight off of Some Sweet Relief, which is—let’s be clear about this—no bad thing. Sure, there is a generally sharper sound here, with less of the warm organic sheen that characterized the earlier album, and less reverb on Balabanian’s vocals. The guitars are perhaps a bit brighter, the keyboards stand out a little more. These are minor changes, though.
All this is fine for those of us who love the band. There are few enough moments of actual repetition, although Balabanian’s languid crooning/wailing at the end of “Slow So Long” sounds an awful lot like the languid crooning/wailing at the end of “Fidelity Shake” from Some Sweet Relief. But there are no clunkers here like the earlier album’s “Angela”; song after song establishes a warm, sloppy groove withing moments, wrapping itself around the listener like a warm fuzzy blanket. This is all good. The whammy-bending on “No Words” is an especially nice touch.
With such consistency, it’s tough to pick standout tracks, but one obvious choice is album closer “Watch the Storm”. At six and a half minutes, it’s by far the longest tune here, and its length allows for a certain heft that escapes some of the earlier songs. Musically, it doesn’t stray far from the band’s comfort zone: layers of echoey guitars, moderate tempo, rumbling bass and drums, and those hushed vocals. The song’s greater length doesn’t so much indicate new elements as greater amounts of already-familiar elements, although there is a brief, gurgling keyboard solo.
If the increased length indicates a future direction for the band, then it’s all good. If nothing else, the scope allows for the band (and the listener) to relax into the song, which is just what this type of music demands. I for one would be thrilled to see a Speck Mountain album that consisted of five or six songs clocking in at ten or twelve minutes each. But that’s just me.
Fans of dreamy, spaced out music should definitely put Speck Mountain on their “must listen” list. Current fans of the band will find themselves satisfied with this offering, which deserves to find many, many listeners.
// Notes from the Road
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