Saltland is a project led by Canadian musician Rebecca Foon, best known as the cellist with the experimental and post-rock bands Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Silver Mt. Zion, Esmerine and Set Fire to Flames. The first album by the group is a moody, somber collection of songs that unsurprisingly leans heavily on the dark tones of Foon’s cello, but that deliberately avoids the bombast of much of the work of those other bands. Where Godspeed and Silver Mt. Zion trade in hypnotic rhythms and grand, cacophonous crescendos, Saltland’s first album is a more restrained, enigmatic piece of work.
Although the album is a mix of instrumental and sung tracks, most of the songs on I Thought It Was Us But It Was All of Us follow a consistent template of glacial strings built over soft, skittery percussion, occasionally augmented by flourishes of horn or electronic effects. Foon’s soft, lilting voice drifts in and out of the music unpredictably, sometimes aimlessly. She sings in a quiet, breathy, drawn-out style that makes parsing the lyrics difficult, leaving only a fog of vaguely unsettled emotion. Often she sounds like Dido on a heavy dose of tranquilizers, somehow both a little too sweet and too sleepy for the music. The end result is a collection of tracks as gloomily beautiful as you’d expect from a musician with her pedigree and background, though as a piece I Thought It Was Us But It Was All of Us lacks the widescreen impact of Foon’s better-known groups.
That isn’t to say the album doesn’t have interestingly atmospheric moments, and the musicianship is as superb as you would expect. But because of the lengthy, meandering way that individual tracks are structured, the highlights are more often passages within songs than the whole tracks themselves: the brief lullaby coda of “Unholy”, say; or the gorgeous looping section that begins the promising album opener, “Golden Alley”. Other passages recall Dirty Three’s urgent beauty, and at their best the songs successfully capture the bleak, wide landscapes that the group seems to have been aiming for.
Unfortunately, the album never really builds much in the way of momentum, or even interest; too often it seems content to operate on the level of mood music for a rainy Sunday evening. The music’s languid, stately pace and overall consistency of approach – many songs repeat motifs and ideas – does generate a sustained mood over the course of the album, it’s just that it’s a rather oppressive one: glum, formless, half-awake. By and large, Saltland draw their songs from a palette that’s all in greyscale. The result is an album that’s hard to get a grip on, and makes you wonder if it’s worth the attempt. I Thought It Was Us But It Was All of Us only has the eight tracks, but even after a few listens they all tend to glide by without any particular impact.