Perhaps one of the best Britrock records of 2008, a year which has seen releases from UK giants like Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Keane and Travis, comes to us special delivery from Madison, Wisconsin and the band Pale Young Gentlemen.
Why give such a geographically-confusing label to the four pale young gentlemen and three pale young ladies who crafted these 12 lush tunes? The answer lies in the group’s union of endearing, melancholy melodies and gentle, pastoral soundscapes; in their sound, Pale Young Gentlemen capture the feelings that Great Britain’s overcast skies and bucolic countryside tend to evoke with more clarity and certainty than any band in recent memory.
Black Forest (Tra La La) is an album that is modest in its aims, yet nearly cinematic in its execution; the band never shoots for the atmospheric hooks or spectacular crescendos produced by their contemporaries. The album is, however, gently stirring and thoroughly stunning. While each song is simple in structure and approached with a certain degree of minimalism, the group understands how to adorn their work with an unpretentious beauty.
Pale Young Gentlemen give you a sense of where they’re headed musically from track one, “Coal/Ivory.” The tune commences with active, rootsy guitars, fluid strings and a pulsing drum beat. Vocalist Michael Reisenauer delivers a quirky and commanding vocal turn; at times, Reisenauer’s baritone approaches a quality not unlike that of Coldplay leader Chris Martin. The band’s tendency toward British stylings increase exponentially in the moments Reisenauer sounds most like Martin.
“Coal/Ivory” introduces the skill and sensitivity of the three string players in the album’s lineup; their playing makes the musical colors provided by violin, viola and cello a constant and often comforting presence. Whether tracks prove hearty and up-tempo or soft and sincere, the group’s string arrangements are adapted to ensure the instruments prove a welcome addition to every track and never a distraction.
The record progresses forward with two of its best songs coming back-to-back: “I Wasn’t Worried,” relies on fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a softly pleading melody from Reisenauer, taking on the dreary feel and minimal form often embraced by Radiohead. “Marvelous Design” follows, revisiting and reviving the album’s often cinematic outlook; with its interplay between rich piano chords and winding strings, the tune sounds like the accompaniment for a cold and blustery street scene, where a protagonist soldiers on, fighting both the wind and his own emotional distress.
Throughout Black Forest , the band blends in a variety of influences; with its lively string passages, gently grooving guitar/bass and percussive stomp, “Our History” feels like a Decemberists track. “We Will Meet,” arguably the album’s crowning achievement, sets a melody that’s pure McCartney against a backdrop worthy of a stately Renaissance chamber concert, giving the track the sound of a modern-day madrigal. In fact, the band’s predisposition toward structuring arrangements around acoustic guitar and strings, writing downy melodies and adding quirky accents often lends the songs on Black Forest a sort of timelessness that is refreshing in this time. That sense is most notably captured on “Goldenface, Morninglight,” a ballad which is shaped by its string figures and includes an wonderful, lilting mid-section which is reprised briefly at the song’s coda.
Progressive yet embracing the past, full of fit and flourish without ever sounding fanciful, Black Forest (Tra La La) is one of the most unique and glorious albums of the year. Pale Young Gentleman have truly captured what it means to be captivating and this record possesses the qualities nececssary to live long past the day in which it was recorded.
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