At its worst, indie-rock embodies its most negative stereotypes, whether it’s being considered too wimpy, or its creators thought of as untalented or emotionally overactive. With its sophomore release, a band from Long Island, New York has shown that, at its best, indie-rock defies stereotypes. The band is As Tall as Lions. On the group’s eponymous second album, sensitivity abounds without dissolving into fragility, and gorgeous melodies and lush instruments surface without fading into sentimentality. As Tall as Lions is skillful, beautiful, and musically significant. It is also one of the best pop/rock surprises of the year.
The two artists whom As Tall as Lions immediately brings to mind are Coldplay and Jeff Buckley. In the ethereal opening track “Stab City”, and in the middle of the piano-backed “Ghost of York”, the band’s instrumentals resemble Coldplay, and this similarity extends to the vocals. Like Chris Martin, Lions singer Daniel Nigro likes to hover in the range between his chest voice and his falsetto. Unlike Martin, Nigro doesn’t lose his vocal presence or agility as he crosses into the heights of his register. In his vocal dexterity and tendency towards swooping melodies, Nigro recalls the work of the late Jeff Buckley. Fans of that legendary artist will have little trouble enjoying these songs.
But fortunately, the work of As Tall as Lions stands on its own merit. The band’s songwriting is particularly strong. The second track, “Song for Luna”, is a highlight. It opens quietly, against a drumbeat and atmospheric sustained chords, and soon moves into the verses, which feature arpeggiated guitar and vocal harmonies, and a chorus with a neat, slippery little chord progression. Emotional tension builds throughout the song, culminating in an explosive bridge and ending with a calm outro featuring organ accompaniment.
“Song for Luna” is just the beginning of the riches on As Tall as Lions. Two songs later comes “Love, Love, Love, (Love, Love)”, a gorgeous song with sparkling instruments and a soaring chorus, rich with harmony. “Ghost of York” builds slowly, with an arpeggiated guitar and a busy drum, and develops into a sweeping, keyboard-infused rocker. Near the end of the album, the band dispenses with the lush accompaniments to deliver the spare, touching “I’m Kicking Myself”. The album’s final track “Maybe I’m Just Tired” opens with a repeating piano, and retains its melancholy mood until the last official words of the album: “I know I’m not good enough for you.” After the song ends, a few minutes of silence begin, but a worthwhile hidden track (a rarity these days) closes out the album.
As Tall as Lions is also strong lyrically. Some lines, such as “In some strange way it’s like you’re never there / you just float by, crawling in the air” (“Stab City”), are appropriately ethereal. Others, like “I’m an anthropophobiac / a wolf from the steppes” (“A Break, A Pause”), are imaginative and metaphoric. All display the sensitivity and good taste that is so prominent in the album’s music.
As Tall as Lions will hold its own compared to the other pop/rock albums of this year, as one of the best. Comparisons, however, are ultimately meaningless. The true test of an album’s worth is the way it creates its own identity and fills a special sonic niche. As Tall as Lions succeeds at that task very well. It is sometimes slow and deliberate, other times emotional and exuberant, and always refreshing and satisfying. On their second album, this band has created songs that delight, console and challenge. Listeners who come across As Tall as Lions can count themselves fortunate.