Martin McNulty Crane V is a surprisingly tough performer to pin down. For a guy descended from four gentlemen who share his name, Crane’s distinctive voice makes him remarkably singular. He’s equal parts eccentric songwriter of noise-experiment pop and part folk-pop band leader. Those two sides clash or meld – depending on the song – on his second record as Brazos, titled Saltwater and the results are always tuneful, bright and catchy and, at their best, brilliant pop songcraft.
Crane’s core trio – comprising Crane on vocals and guitar, Spencer Zahn on Bass, and Ian Chang on drums – recorded the foundation of these songs live as a group. But opener “Always On” skews our ear away from that core band, towards layers of pop bliss laid on top of them. The skittering shuffle of a song is bursting with high-register hooks and ringing keyboards, bouncing along on Chang’s smooth drums accented by other clattering percussion. “Why should I train my eye on such high-flying fruit?” Crane wonders, seeking the comfort of mediocrity, of settling for the middle, even as the song that braces those words assures you he couldn’t aim low if he tried.
Sometimes the band prefers to sneak its pop heft in on you. “How the Ranks Was Won” presents itself as bone-lean power-pop, but it’s true charge comes in the backing vocals that build it up, the way they tangle with guitars both jagged and dusty, the way Zahn and Chang beef up the rhythm section from lightly propulsive to a muscled stomp. This careful but striking use of layers is a muddy counterpoint to the astral plane of “Always On”, or the more subtle rippling of the excellent “Valencia” or the cinematic shimmer of “Irene”. Each of these songs is approachable, the kind of tune that can easily get stuck in your head. But Crane’s attention to detail recalls pop geniuses like David Byrne, with all the edge but none of the self-conscious weirdness.
Saltwater is an album that is eccentric on its own terms, which is to say off-kilter but charmingly so. The way Crane put the album together, by recording the core tracks with the band and then adding all those pianos and synths and the like creates an album with endless paths to travel down, new peccadilloes to find in each spin of the record. The title track distills all these charms into an unpredictable, constantly shifting gem of a song. The verses are just warm acoustics and spare percussion under Crane’s honeyed voice. Crane’s songs ask often unanswerable questions, mostly of himself. In this one, he wonders “and I question if that cold heart was in me from the start.” Perhaps the best move he and his band makes here is not writing answers into the lyrics, but rather letting the music respond. The soaring guitars, the thick beds of keyboard, the light band in lock-step behind these sweet melodies, they are the assured answer to any call of self-doubt.
It’s also fitting that the title track here references Moby Dick. Crane sounds like a voice who reveres the great voices who came before, the great mythic beasts, the myth of the sea itself. If it’s a metaphor here, though, it does not follow the same path as Melville’s novel. There are moments where Crane is searching for something and not quite finding it – a song like “One Note Pillow” is too middle-of-the-road pop to fit the dynamics of this record – but mostly this is the sound of someone who found, if not a white whale, then something they’ve been searching for, something they aren’t destroyed by or interested in destroying, but rather something to dig deeper into, to reshape into new things to chase down. Saltwater finds Crane and company on a voyage not to a destination, but to create more voyages, and that open-ended sense of discovery – a sense both honest and totally cunning – makes this a rewarding record, for players and listener alike.