Bodies of Water

by Kevin Pearson

25 April 2008

As a musical entity, Bodies of Water don’t sound like anyone else. They are known to mine Ennio Morricone’s western riffs, tip a hat to Tropicalia, and borrow as much from old gospel groups as they do from today’s current music scene.

Like the vast oceans from which they take their name, Bodies of Water are expansive, deep, and full of life. They can be soothing and calm, yet are capable of producing swelling pockets of surf that crash against the audience in the form of multi-layered, four-part vocal harmonies and squalls of sound. The best thing about Bodies of Water, though, is the constant reminder that songs don’t have to be perfected for them to be, well, perfect. Live, their harmonies don’t always hit the mark in a technical sense, but their euphoric exuberance constantly makes them more emotionally charging than a group that is always on point.

As a musical entity, Bodies of Water don’t sound like anyone else. Sure, you can point a finger at the Polyphonic Spree’s multi-part harmonies and pick out a smidgen of Arcade Fire’s bombastic approach to songwriting. Yet they also mine Ennio Morricone’s western riffs, tip a hat to Tropicalia, and borrow as much from old gospel groups as they do from today’s current music scene. (Their website contains a page of links to their favorite gospel groups.) It’s a refreshing approach that doesn’t recycle the same tired template and anodyne influences. Whereas Arcade Fire fill their songs with studious emotional signifiers and U2-styled histrionics, Bodies of Water are joyously unrefined, pure and unadulterated. They make bashful, beautiful music, and belt out every song as if it’s an encore.

Bodies of Water

23 Mar 2008: Johnny Brendas — Philadelphia, PA

Based in LA, the co-ed four-piece began before they could play a note. Only guitarist David Metcalf, who grew up playing piano, knew how to form a chord. Several years ago he married Meredith, who started singing the songs. She learned how to play keys so that she had something to do with her hands onstage. Once the core was established, they asked their friends Kyle Gladden and Jessie Conklin to play bass and drums respectively. This pair also adds additional vocal inflections to the group’s strong choral aesthetic, with Conklin, especially, acting as a perfect foil to the Metcalfs’ emotional subtlety. 

No longer amateurs—they’ve been together for over five years now—there’s still a ramshackle charm to their sound. It’s a sound that is emblematic of not only the band’s name (luckily they got rid of their initial moniker, Death of the Unicorn), but also their current album title, Ears Will Pop and Eyes Will Blink. Self-released last summer, the record features a dazzling array of rousing tunes that fluctuate from fizzing with wild abandon, to slow, almost spiritual passages where their intertwined vocals come to the fore.

Engaging the audience from the get-go, they crack jokes about an invisible force-field around the front of the stage, basically asking that we move forward. We do, almost immediately. “That was a pretty weak force-field,” quips Gladden. Despite sound problems that seem to sully the musicians more than us (they ask for something to be turned up or down in their monitors before each song), they still manage to make a slew of noise from a simple set up of singular instruments—guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums. On “I Guess I’ll Forget the Sound, I Guess, I Guess”, which triumphantly announces their arrival, they sound twice as raucous as Arcade Fire with half as many members. Unfortunately, some of their slighter vocal movements are drowned out by the accompanying bar chatter. When they ramp it up, though, with Conklin pounding her drums with a primal force, the idle talk takes a backseat. Conversations stop; as their album title suggests, ears pop and eyes blink.

Like their songs, which are epic odysseys that feature mores twists and turns than the Democratic Primary race, the band’s in-between song banter is similarly stretched out. Prior to their second song, Metcalf explains that they are winging tonight’s set list and that we, the audience, can decide what they play via a game of “choose your own adventure.” We are then given two alternatives: a tale about a debauched trip to Amsterdam, or a rather convoluted story of self-hypnosis that ends with us waking up in a shower of champagne while being crowned NASCAR champion. Like their music, it’s a little off-kilter and not quite together, but it’s interesting and intriguing, and the majority of the crowd plunge for the second story, which the band then announces they will ‘soundtrack’ by playing a new song entitled “If I Wear Bells”.

What’s most striking about Bodies of Water is their ability to take disparate styles—gospel and rock, for example—and turn them into a singular, solid entity; in essence, their own distinct sound. It’s an achievement made possible by their ability to supplement additional instrumentation through their own vocal accentuations. For example, when they need a trumpet, they vocalize it via a rising set of interchangeable “ba ba ba’s.”

While choral corrals are their main commodity, one thing they definitely don’t deal in is economical songwriting. All of their songs easily surge past five minutes, yet they never seem stretched out or repetitive. Only on one extended coda, when they fall into a trance-like instrumental state, does a song outstay its welcome; even then, it’s no more than a minute.

They close with “These Are the Eyes”, an ecstatically charged and emotional rollercoaster of a song that seems, on a surface level, to be about awareness. “These are the eyes,” sings the band in unison, “these are the eyes of my eyes.” It’s a simple evocation of who we are, yet it’s interesting, in these days of constant communication, how often we simply forget our own bodily form. Bodies of Water are a band that reaffirm this notion. From the simple evocation of love that opens “I Guess I’ll Forget the Sound, I Guess, I Guess” (“Dear, when I touch your face / I can no longer hear”) to “It is Familiar”, which, with the help of the band’s best four-part harmonies, ruminates on the familiar smell or someone’s lotion, Bodies of Water encompass a world of simple pleasures. Dive in, the water’s great.

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